Will bonuses lure cops to San Jose?
San Jose is looking to add more officers to its ranks. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    As San Jose faces a continuous shortage of cops, the city is offering a new financial incentive to lure experienced officers.

    The city council this week unanimously approved a lateral hiring bonus of $10,000 for officers who come to San Jose from another police department. The goal is to incentivize more experienced officers to join the force and expand the police department. The city allocated $150,000 for pilot program — enough for 15 officers. It will start at the end of October.

    San Jose officials pitched the idea to the San Jose Police Officer Association in the midst of contract negotiations — which are still ongoing after months — in an attempt to solve some of the staffing shortages.

    For years, San Jose officials have bemoaned the police department’s shrinking staff. It’s been the top issue on the 2022 campaign trail with San Jose mayoral candidates Cindy Chavez and Matt Mahan promising to beef up the police force. The contentious issue dominated the 2016 mayor’s race too when then-candidate Sam Liccardo supported Measure B, a 2012 initiative to reduce police pensions and led to an exodus of officers. While police budgets have increased 50% in the last decade to $415 million — more than 15% of the general fund — staffing has not matched up.

    San Jose has 1,153 sworn officers for a city of more than a million residents. The city recently budgeted for 20 more positions. By comparison, San Francisco employs 2,100 sworn officers with a population of about 875,000.

    The San Jose Police Department is seeing fewer recruits, and those in training are dropping out or failing at the highest rate since 2021. The police union also warns that San Jose may see a mass exodus of officers in the next three years because of chronic staffing issues. A nonredacted roster of officer separations obtained by San José Spotlight showed 209 sworn officers—including 47 recruits in the academy—have left the department since January 2021.

    “There’s been a lot of focus on how we address the challenge,” Liccardo said at the Tuesday meeting. “This challenge with police recruiting is across the state and nation.”

    Liccardo said while he supports the new program, he worries that it could “become something of a race to the bottom” if cities are competing against each other and increasing lateral bonuses to poach officers.

    Jennifer Schembri, director of human resources and employee relations, said she doesn’t anticipate that will happen, especially because a $10,000 bonus alone is not reason enough to make someone leave their job and move. But it may incentivize an officer on the fence to make that leap to San Jose.

    “I think that there’s a lot that San Jose offers that other agencies don’t that would attract them over here,” Schembri said. “This is just one kind of addition to that.”

    Schembri said the city is already doing a fairly good job with attracting laterals to the agency with six officers added this year and a couple more in the pipeline. Lateral officers who join on or after Oct. 30 will receive the full $10,000 at their one-year anniversary.

    The police union isn’t so sure the program will work.

    Tom Saggau, spokesperson for the San Jose Police Officer Association, said the program is a drop in the bucket. The San Jose Police Department’s vacancy rate is 2.56%, according to the city, and it is considered among the lowest in the region. But Saggau said the rate is irrelevant because the total number of sworn officers is much lower than 20 years ago and response times for crime has shot up.

    Saggau says paying the officers more money is a better plan. The union is asking for a 14% raise over the next two years and a $5,000 bonus. For the average police officer, who makes around $189,000, that would be an additional $31,000. San Jose is offering a 6% raise over the next two years, noting officers are the highest paid union in the city. San Jose officers are also the third-highest paid across police departments in the Bay Area, according to the city.

    “Unfortunately, a lateral incentive on its own does zero for retaining officers and won’t add a single cadet into our ghost town-like academies,” Saggau told San José Spotlight. “We encourage our city leaders to focus on why our department is chronically understaffed, the burden that places on our fatigued officers and creating real solutions and not gimmicks to restore police staffing.”

    Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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