The Los Angeles Police Department, which never before had to try very hard to attract new officers, faces an unprecedented hiring crisis, potentially jeopardizing a critical federal grant and forcing officials to undertake more aggressive--and creative--recruiting methods.
The LAPD's declining pool of diverse candidates mirrors a national trend created by an improved economy that has pushed unemployment to its lowest level in 30 years. Agencies up and down the state report similar hiring problems: The California Highway Patrol says applications dropped 40% from 1995 to 1998; the Sacramento Police Department reports a 35% drop in the last two years and the Santa Ana Police Department is 12% below its authorized level. The Orange Police Department says it, too, has job openings that reached a peak earlier this year, when the department was down by nearly 10%.
Police departments around the country are competing with one another as recruiters travel to other cities to boost their ranks. Law enforcement conferences are holding workshops to help agencies deal with the problem.
In Los Angeles, the numbers clearly tell the story:
The Police Department expected to hire about 750 officers this fiscal year. So far, however, the department has fallen far short with just 160 officers recruited since July. The department typically has about 1,200 candidates a month in the testing and hiring pipeline, but that number fell to 500 last month.
$8.2 Million Grant to Hire Officers
City officials anticipated hiring 157 new officers this year with the aid of an $8.2-million federal grant, aggressively sought by Mayor Richard Riordan and announced with great fanfare last year by Vice President Al Gore.
But to continue receiving that money, the department has to maintain a level of 9,771 officers before it can hire the additional officers. The department is more than 250 officers below that number with 9,518 as of last month.
The Police Academy, which typically had about 60 to 70 officers in a class, now lags behind at 35 to 40. One class in August had 12 officers.
The problem is twofold: New recruits are not flooding the city's employment offices as they used to and officers are leaving the department in higher numbers than expected. (Officials say that it is too early to tell if the unfolding Rampart corruption scandal is playing a role in recruitment.) In this fiscal year, the LAPD lost 235 officers; 154 who retired, 75 who resigned and six who were fired.
Riordan, who made increasing public safety a cornerstone of his administration, pledged to expand the LAPD to more than 10,000 officers--the highest number in its history--when he was elected in 1993. That goal will not be met by the time he leaves office in 2001.
"It is a concern when you have the resources and the officers aren't walking through the door to sign up at the rate that you'd like them to," said Deputy Mayor Noelia Rodriguez, who said the mayor's office was briefed on the problem. "Whether it's the military, the Police Department or other law enforcement agencies, when you have a strong economy, it's a buyer's market for candidates. The challenge to the city is to become even more innovative and entrepreneurial in recruiting."
Department Plans Aggressive Recruiting
The department has plans underway to more aggressively seek job candidates. Among these, which will be presented to two council panels beginning next week, are: recruiting trips to Tucson, Sacramento, Oakland, perhaps even Texas and Chicago; offering $2,000 in relocation assistance to officers hired from more than 150 miles away; paying $200 bonuses to any city employee who successfully recruits an officer; and tuition reimbursement, considered a marketing tool to attract officers.
"We've never really had to be aggressive in our recruiting style," said Sgt. Bill Frio, who oversees recruitment. "People sought us out. . . . Now, we have to be a lot more creative in an area that we've never had to be before."
The department's mandate to secure a mix of women and minorities also makes hiring tougher when college graduates, and others, are selecting careers in which, as Frio said, "you don't have to put your life on the line."
Currently, LAPD officers with a high school diploma start at $41,000; those with a two-year college degree start at $43,000; and those with a four-year degree start at nearly $46,000.
City Council members, who are concerned about the hiring declines, say that they support increased efforts to compete with the private sector.
"We made a commitment as a city to continuing the expansion of our Police Department," said Councilman Mike Feuer, who heads the Budget and Finance Committee. "Certainly none of us anticipated when we made that commitment that recruiting would be a problem. There was never any discussion of what might happen should we fail to attract the number of new officers we need."