Decked out in his new uniform blues, David Gamero represents one important victory for the Los Angeles Police Department. He's a successful LAPD recruit.
Gamero, 34, was recently persuaded to leave the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to join the LAPD, and he was part of a graduating class of 39 officers last month.
The officer was drawn by a $4,000 bump in salary and the opportunity to trade working in the county jails for driving a patrol car with a partner through the streets of South Los Angeles.
"That's why 99% of people join the police, to get out on the street," he said.
As Los Angeles tries to add 1,000 officers in five years to the smallest big-city police department in the nation, it has found there haven't been enough David Gameros to go around.
The LAPD and police departments around the country are engaged in an intense competition over an increasingly limited pool of suitable people interested in becoming cops.
In Los Angeles, the department is fortifying its recruitment efforts in its drive to beat out other departments and attract the elusive recruit. The department has increased its full-time recruitment team from two to 12. It is offering a $1,000 cash reward to any employee who brings in a successful recruit. And recruiters are hitting the college job-placement circuits.
"We are going to make this happen," said William Scott DeYoung, chief of police recruiting for the personnel department. "There is a lot of cachet not only to the LAPD, but also the city."
Several factors have combined to leave police departments hard-pressed to fill their ranks. They include mass retirements by the baby boomer generation, a strong economy providing better-paying jobs in the private sector and a military that is bulked up and repeatedly extending the service commitments of soldiers who might otherwise become police officers, according to Jason Abend, executive director of the National Law Enforcement Recruiters Assn.
Everybody's feeling the pinch: New York City is struggling to hire 3,300 officers this year, Abend said. Chicago, which used to have a waiting list of applicants, now must scramble to keep recruits in the pipeline.
And, in California, law enforcement agencies are facing a collective 8,500 vacancies, according to Bob Stesak of the state Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training. Five years ago, the 39 police academies in the state were turning out 4,500 new officers annually; this year they are expected to graduate fewer than 3,000.
"It's incredibly competitive," said Margaret Whelan, personnel director for the city of Los Angeles. "Everybody is hiring. Everybody is drawing from the same pool."
With fewer candidates available for a greater number of police jobs, law enforcement agencies throughout the country are having to take unusual steps -- from offering fat signing bonuses to airing seductive TV commercials in other cities -- to gain a competitive edge and keep their ranks staffed.
Los Angeles -- where the City Council is considering expanding the bounty offer of $1,000 to include any nonprofit agency that brings in a recruit -- faces some special hurdles. These include high housing costs and lingering fallout from controversies such as the Rampart Division police corruption scandal. Also, the city has found it particularly difficult to attract African American recruits because of long-standing views among some minorities, particularly blacks, that the department is hostile to them.
Recruits from people leaving the military -- who once made up 30% of the LAPD's new hires -- have dwindled to 10% or less. And the department still struggles to keep its officers from jumping to other agencies. Although the LAPD has lured 13 from other departments this year, it has lost 18 to law enforcement organizations offering better pay, newer equipment and less stressful working conditions, LAPD officials said.
Years of tight budgets have left Los Angeles as the most under-policed big city in the nation. The LAPD fields one officer for every 411 residents, compared with New York City, which has one officer per 207 residents, and Chicago, with one officer for every 210 residents.
The Los Angeles Police Department fell 323 officers short of its expansion plans for the fiscal year that ended Friday. The police force was supposed to grow during the last year by 370 officers, to a total of 9,611.
The LAPD has 315 recruits in the Police Academy who will be graduating during the next seven months. At that rate, and taking attrition into account, the LAPD could fall more than 100 short of the 650 new officers budgeted, although recruiters are intent on preventing that.
Those who do make it into the Police Academy are in for a seven-month regimen that is physically and mentally grueling. They face college-level classes and an intense physical fitness program, driving lessons and weapons drills that test their stamina and precision performance under pressure.