Alameda offered a $75,000 bonus to new cops. Other California departments are scrambling to keep up

Only five months ago, Alameda Police Chief Nishant Joshi was facing a critical staffing shortage. Almost one-third of his department’s 88 sworn positions were vacant, leaving him with 24 jobs to fill as soon as possible.

He wasn’t the only one in that situation. Over the last several years, many California police departments have reported significant hiring challenges in a persistently tight labor market.

But, in April, Joshi’s city council gave him something special to entice candidates to Alameda: a $75,000 enlistment bonus on top of regular pay that starts at $110,000 per year.

It’s effective.

Following 170 applications from across the country, the Alameda Police Department now has enough officers enrolled in academies to reduce the department’s projected total vacancies to 10 by early next year. Joshi attributes the bonuses to attracting applicants to a city with a high cost of living.

“There are million-dollar mansions here.” “The average rent here is also $3,000,” Joshi said, hoping that the extra cash bonus will help officers who are expected to live in the East Bay’s expensive housing market.

Alameda’s large bonuses are an eye-catching example of the fierce competition among California law enforcement agencies to replace officers who retired or changed careers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cities across the state are now offering lucrative new contracts and incentives to law enforcement officers.

Last month, the Los Angeles City Council approved a four-year, $384 million contract for police officers that raises starting pay significantly and provides retention bonuses to officers with as little as two years of experience. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a contract in April that raises the starting pay for entry-level officers to around $108,000, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The city is also offering $5,000 signing bonuses.

Closer to Alameda in the East Bay, Richmond adopted a police contract in October that increases pay by 20% over 26 months. El Cerrito, another Alameda neighbor, offered a $10,000 signing bonus to entice new recruits.

Alameda Mayor Marilyn Ashcraft admitted the $75,000 bonus was “a little bit eye-popping.” However, “more of what I hear is envy” from leaders in other cities who want to match or beat the offer, she added.

According to retired Redondo Beach Police Department lieutenant Diane Goldstein, the danger is a growing gap between cities and counties that can afford to pay large bonuses to address staffing shortages and those that can’t.

“This whole signing bonus thing began a few years ago. It creates police departments for the haves and have-nots,” said Goldstein, executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a non-profit dedicated to improving police-community relations.

“It may be a well-intentioned policy, thinking they can attract the best and brightest, but it potentially creates inequities in policing,” she said.

More California cops and greater accountability

The police hiring perks come as California cities deal with competing demands from constituents following the civil rights protests that erupted in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020.

According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in January 2023, 49% of adults believe police spending in their area should be increased, while 13% believe spending should be reduced.

Some California residents are particularly concerned about rising crime. For example, the Oakland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People wrote a letter in July urging city leaders to declare a state of emergency due to rising crime.

“A lot of people are leaving Oakland.” They are afraid to leave their homes to work, shop, or dine in Oakland, which is stifling economic activity. Small and large businesses struggle and close, tax revenues disappear, and we are creating the infamous doom-loop in which life in our city continues to spiral downward,” the letter read.

However, in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, Americans have called for “major changes” in the way police are conducted, according to a 2020 Gallup poll. Among the changes are holding officers accountable for abuses of power and capping law enforcement spending in order to hire more social workers or other professionals to respond to emergency calls.

In response to those appeals, California lawmakers passed legislation authorizing a commission to decertify police officers accused of misconduct and requiring the state Department of Justice to investigate most fatal police shootings.

This year, police accountability advocates pushed for additional legislation, including one that would limit the use of police stops for bicyclists and drivers for minor infractions such as expired license plates.

“Instead of putting more money into police departments and creating those huge hiring bonuses,” Eliana Machefsky, a legal fellow for the National Police Accountability Project, suggested.

According to Natasha Minsker, a policy adviser at the nonprofit Smart Justice California, law enforcement agencies should prioritize changing their cultures.

“Pay them a reasonable wage, whatever that is.” “People should be paid a fair wage,” Minsker said of the recent increases in officer pay. “It doesn’t matter how much you pay them, it’s how much you change the culture.”

How a small East Bay city attracts talent

Many California police chiefs say they’re trying to figure out how to fill their ranks while also improving community relations.

El Cerrito, a city of 26,000 people located north of Berkeley, has its own staffing issues. The average home price in Alameda and its neighbors in the inner Bay Area is around $1 million.

“I don’t think there’s much we can do to stop you if you’re motivated by higher pay,” said El Cerrito Mayor Lisa Motoyama, who said she has little wiggle room to address staffing issues in the city’s $14 million police budget. “There is no way we can compete with Alameda.” We simply cannot compete.”

El Cerrito lost 21 officers between 2020 and 2021.

According to the police chief, nine of those departures were retirements or resignations, and 12 were transferred to other police and sheriff’s departments, including Solano, Marin, Walnut Creek, and Contra Costa.

“The most common reasons cited in our exit interviews were a desire to be closer to home or have more opportunities for personal growth in a new agency,” said El Cerrito Police Chief Paul Keith in an email.

Keith first became aware of the staffing crisis in the summer of 2020. He has continued to hear officers express dissatisfaction with their jobs since then.”They also predominantly left for agencies that paid more money,” he added.

The city stepped in with new benefits, such as free gym memberships and dry cleaning. Then it threw in some extra cash.

“We attempted to institute a recruitment bonus that was nowhere near $75,000,” Motoyama explained. The El Cerrito department, on the other hand, offered a $10,000 signing bonus.

“We had a big swearing in four months ago, with a lot of women.” “Whatever we’re doing is effective,” she said.

El Cerrito has 36 officers as of this summer, with only one vacancy.

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