Eleven San Jose police officers boarded planes in May and flew to Hawaii in search of bodies. The goal of the trip, which lasted 11 days, was to attend two job fairs and bring back academy recruits—preferably smart, strong, honorably discharged vets—to provide a transfusion of new blood into one of the most beleaguered police departments in the country.
The trip garnered little scrutiny at the time, as logistics were cobbled together in less than two months. Nonetheless, SJPD’s three-person recruiting division reportedly reached out to a total of 884 prospects by phone and email ahead of time. Of the 11 SJPD officers to touch down in Oahu, three were sent out early to build a six-foot wall for an obstacle course to test applicants, while others came to the shores of Waikiki in waves over the course of two weeks. They stayed at the Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort & Spa, located “just steps from the sparkling water and sandy beaches of the Pacific Ocean,” according to the hotel’s website.
Lt. Heather Randol, who oversees San Jose’s recruitment division, says it was “not a vacation” but rather “a long and tiring trip.” SJPD had interviews scheduled with 89 people: three were disqualified ahead of time, seven withdrew and 29 “washed out,” failing to show up for their interviews. The remaining applicants completed at least one part of the hiring process.
But as of this week—the same week San Jose invoked an “emergency” declaration to sidestep labor restrictions to backfill police patrol assignments—the trip to Hawaii has resulted in just one recruit going through the background check process for October’s academy. Five others have tentatively signed on for next year’s three academies, but they too must pass a rigorous background check that results in less than 1 percent of applicants making the cut.
The total cost for these six maybes: $42,692 and change—not including overtime.
San Jose’s police academies can handle a maximum of 60 new recruits per cycle, but they have fallen far short of that number in recent years. The academy launched in June has just 18 cadets, which is better than the seven who advanced out of February’s class but still not enough to make up for unprecedented losses. Since 2012, SJPD has seen 292 officers resign and 198 retire, bringing the department’s street-ready officer total to 812—and leaving roughly 200 vacancies. Fewer than the minimum required 500 officers bid for patrol beats in the latest round of assignments this summer, pushing the city into an emergency situation.
It’s this depletion of staff—motivated by cuts to pay, pensions and disability protections over the last five years—that has similarly inspired a sense of desperation on the part of SJPD recruiters.
“We’re willing to try anything right now,” Randol says.
Anything, apparently, resulted in the Hawaii trip, which has worked very well for public safety departments like Sunnyvale’s, which requires officers to work as police, firefighters and EMTs but also offers better compensation and benefits than SJPD. While attending the same job fairs this spring in Hawaii, Sunnyvale hired 13 new officers after landing 12 last year, according to Chief Frank Grgurina.
“When you look at the number of people we get coming back, you can’t argue with the results,” he says.
The same can hardly be said for San Jose. The expense of the Hawaii trip accounts for nearly a seventh of SJPD’s annual $350,000 recruiting budget, which has raised concerns that SJPD has not been wisely allocating its resources for recruiting.
“I’m no expert when it comes to police recruiting, but I would not have used public dollars for a recruiting trip to Hawaii,” says San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo. “Based on the numbers we see today, it was not a good use of the public dollars.”
Another issue that has come under scrutiny is the department’s marketing decisions, which to date are being decided by officers who have training in variety of law enforcement methods, of which advertising is not one.
“I made that point very clear publicly, when the city audit came to the City Council months ago,” Liccardo says. “I emphasized the importance of having civilian expertise in marketing and outreach strategies.”
San Jose Police Chief Chief Eddie Garcia, who asked the mayor and council to declare an emergency to rebid assignments and make up for the lack of officers on patrol, said an outside marketing agency is expected to soon help the department. He admits, however, that “we’re not a quality employer, so we struggle with recruiting.” (After the publication of this story, Chief Garcia clarified that SJPD is not a “competitive” employer.—Editor)
The hope among elected officials and department brass is that Measure F—the November ballot measure to finalize a settlement on Measure B pension reforms—will allow the department to gain some certainty for the future.
“We have to cast a wide net,” Garcia says. “I’m not saying [the Hawaii trip] was or wasn’t successful, but we will look at this trip and see which are more fruitful than others.”
He adds, “You miss every shot you don’t take.”
The risk-reward factor is certainly something to consider. Sunnyvale took just one less person than SJPD’s contingent to Hawaii—10 total; eight sworn officers and two civilian staffers—but sustained a presence for more than three weeks. During this time, Sunnyvale officers cycled in and out to conduct written, oral and agility tests, initial psychological screenings and complete background checks. The trip took more than twice as long as San Jose’s effort, at a cost of $180,000 to $190,000, according to Deputy Chief Dayton Pang.
Another big difference, according to records obtained through a Public Records Act request, is planning: SJPD recruiters decided to attend the Hawaii trip based on a March 12 email from an outside source whose name was redacted from the email. SJPD did not clarify who sent this message less than two months prior to the job fairs. By comparison, Sunnyvale’s department says it began planning for its trip in December 2015.
Lt. Randol, who took over SJPD recruitment in December and Chief Garcia calls the “future of this police department,” says the trip to Hawaii can’t be fully judged until more follow-up is conducted. Unlike Sunnyvale, San Jose’s trip was just an introduction to a market that has a similarly high cost of living to Silicon Valley but a much lower median income.
“Now that we’ve gone out there we’ve established ourselves,” Randol says. However, she adds, there is no current plan for San Jose officers to return to Hawaii in the near future.