San Jose Police Department struggles to staff up
More police officers will walk the beat in downtown San Jose. File photo.

    Staffing the police department for the largest city in Northern California is proving to be a headache.

    The San Jose Police Department currently has 1,153 budgeted positions with 20 vacancies, according to spokesperson Christian Camarillo. But he said this doesn’t reflect the true number of sworn officers working because at any given time there are people out due to illness, disability or training.

    “In terms of working bodies, we’re below 1,000,” Camarillo told San José Spotlight.

    San Jose’s population is pushing past 1 million residents, but the city has a comparatively small police department. San Francisco, which has a population of about 875,000, employs a police force of more than 2,100 sworn officers—almost double what San Jose can boast.

    Treading water

    Law enforcement officials say San Jose’s police staffing shortage can be traced to 2012, when then Mayor Chuck Reed pushed a ballot measure to reduce pension benefits. The San Jose Police Officers’ Association sued the city to stop the reform and succeeded in saving benefits for existing employees. But hundreds of officers left the department during the protracted struggle, said spokesperson Tom Saggau.

    “Since that time, the department has done its best to try to increase staffing, but it’s never been quite enough—it just barely meets or slightly exceeds attrition,” Saggau told San José Spotlight. “We’ve been sort of treading water for some time.”

    A recent city report shows SJPD’s budget has grown over the past 20 years, but staffing has decreased. In 2000, the department was budgeted for 1,358 sworn staff. In 2020-21, that number dropped by about 200. SJPD saw an unusually high number of retirements over the past year. There’s also been a record drop in applications: From 10,063 applicants in 2017-18 to 3,375 in the last fiscal year. The department had a budget of $471.5 million in 2020, which accounted for roughly 30% of San Jose’s general fund.

    Hiring efforts

    Recruitment has picked up since the slump after 2012, but the police department has seen a small decline in recent years. SJPD hired 158 new recruits in 2018, 140 in 2019 and 105 in 2020. So far this year SJPD has hired 74 new recruits.

    During this same period, the number of recruits promoted as officers fluctuated: In 2018, the department promoted 136 recruits, and in 2019 and 2020 it promoted 83 and 88, respectively. One hundred fifteen recruits have been promoted this year.

    As to why recruitment proves challenging, Camarillo said police departments in general are struggling to attract candidates in the wake of last summer’s protests over policing and racial justice. But some candidates turn down job offers in San Jose in favor of smaller towns such as Sunnyvale or Santa Clara where they can land better salaries or benefits. Related to this is the challenge of convincing prospective officers to relocate to one of the most expensive cities in the country.

    “Why be a police officer in San Jose and pay $1 million for a home when you could be a police officer in other states and maybe not get paid as much, but the cost of living is way more affordable?” Camarillo said.

    Bob Nunez, president of the San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP, agrees staffing levels are low, but feels it’s important to make sure the community has a say in how officers are deployed.

    “I always wonder, what does (staffing) translate to in terms of the kinds of service they’re talking about? Is it actual sworn officers? Is it the kind of community service members who go out and aren’t armed?” Nunez said. “Those are the things I believe need to be discussed… staffing alone isn’t going to be a cure-all.”

    ‘The less police, the better’

    Even as the department tries to grow its staff, it’s responding to more calls from San Jose residents. SJPD received more than 1.2 million calls for service in fiscal year 2019-20, resulting in 331,000 officer responses. That’s up from 274,000 responses compared to 2016-2017.

    To meet demand, the department has increased overtime hours by 300% over the past decade—and seven of the top 10 highest paid city employees work for SJPD.

    Saggau said he’s concerned overtime is burning out officers, especially those who commute from distant suburbs. He said current response times for priority two calls average at more than 20 minutes—the goal is 11 minutes. Priority two calls are for injuries, property damage, missing persons who are children or people who are at-risk.

    The San Jose Police Department is slowly trying to fill up units cut in recent years to ensure officers are always available to take 911 calls.

    “One of the units we’re trying to grow back up is traffic enforcement,” Camarillo said, noting that the unit used to have about 50 people but now is down to roughly 15. “Since I’ve been a cop up through now, traffic is usually people’s number one concern… so that’s one unit where I know we’re trying to put people back.”

    While staffing is an overriding concern in the police force, some advocates see this as an opportunity for San Jose to re-prioritize its resources.

    “I think the less police, the better,” Raj Jayadev, founder of Silicon Valley De-Bug, told San José Spotlight. “If that means our city is going to look into other ways to address people’s needs outside of law enforcement contact or incarceration, that’s going to be better for San Jose.”

    Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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