The bat­tle to find and keep cops

Tight lo­cal bud­gets, risks of job are hur­dles

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - FRONT PAGE - Bartholomew Sul­li­van USA TO­DAY

WASHINGTON Sali­nas, Calif., Po­lice Chief Kelly McMillin is sit­ting on $3.4 mil­lion in Com­mu­nity Ori­ented Polic­ing Ser­vices grant money to pay for school re­source of­fi­cers but fears the de­part­ment may lose the money if it can’t at­tract re­cruits.

Autho­rized to have 174 of­fi­cers, Sali­nas had 131 last week. To re­cruit more, it has eased its pro­hi­bi­tion on prior mar­i­juana use by job prospects from three years to one year, raised the time al­lowed to run an agility test and waived the $100 fee for test­ing. Still, cur­rent staff must work 15hour days at least twice a week.

“That’s opened up ac­cess to other­wise good ap­pli­cants that other de­part­ments have turned away,” he said of the mar­i­juana pol­icy. “But even if we had 174, we’re still mas­sively un­der­staffed.”

De­part­ments around the coun­try are find­ing it dif­fi­cult to re­cruit and re­tain po­lice of­fi­cers, and Chicago an­nounced last week that it plans to hire 970 of­fi­cers the next two years.

The fed­eral COPS pro­gram, be­gun in 1994, has placed 127,000 of­fi­cers in 13,000 state, lo­cal and tribal law en­force­ment agen­cies and is bud­geted to spend $137 mil­lion this year.

Kather­ine McQuay, the act­ing chief of staff at the COPS of­fice in Washington, said Sali­nas shouldn’t worry about not com­mit­ting the funds by next Septem­ber’s dead­line be­cause it wants the city to use the money and it can ap­ply for an ex­ten­sion.

Sali­nas’ grant from the Jus­tice De­part­ment was the largest in Cal­i­for­nia when it was an­nounced in 2014 and the de­part­ment was just 15 short of its autho­rized pay­roll.

Typ­i­cally, COPS grants pay 75% of an of­fi­cer’s salary and ben­e­fits up to a max­i­mum $125,000 per of­fi­cer. But the Jus­tice De­part­ment waived the match­ing city costs be­cause Sali­nas couldn’t af­ford it. The $3.4 mil­lion would pay for eight school re­source of­fi­cers for three years, with the city ob­li­gated to re­tain them at its ex­pense for a fourth year.

The school re­source of­fi­cer pro­gram, which Sali­nas once staffed at eight to 10, was “the first ca­su­alty of the re­ces­sion,” McMillin said. The de­part­ment now has a re­tired of­fi­cer work­ing part time to re­duce stu­dent tru­ancy. The goal is to build re­la­tion­ships with stu­dents, but that can only hap­pen if re­cruits sign up and pass the six­month po­lice academy.

McMillin ac­knowl­edges be­ing peeved at City Coun­cil meet­ings when mem­bers of the pub­lic chide him for not hav­ing more Span­ish-speak­ing of­fi­cers in a city where 70% of the pop­u­la­tion is His­panic and al­most half speak only Span­ish.

“Thank you, Cap­tain Ob­vi­ous,” said McMillin, who is re­tir­ing at the end of the month. “I’ll take a Mar­tian. I’m tak­ing all com­ers who are ca­pa­ble of be­ing good po­lice of­fi­cers.”

What he won’t take are the morally or eth­i­cally chal­lenged, like a 27-yearold who ad­mit­ted work­ing part time for cash while draw­ing un­em­ploy­ment

“Even if we had 174, we’re still mas­sively un­der­staffed.”

Kelly McMillin, po­lice chief, Sali­nas, Calif.

ben­e­fits.

“That’s dis­hon­est,” he said. “That’s ba­si­cally theft.”

Ven­tura Po­lice Chief Ken Cor­ney, who is pres­i­dent of the Cal­i­for­nia Po­lice Chiefs As­so­ci­a­tion, said a lot of of­fi­cers are quit­ting be­cause “they find it’s a chal­leng­ing pro­fes­sion and the na­tional nar­ra­tive and the vi­o­lence is not some­thing they want for their fam­i­lies. Es­sen­tially there are greater dan­gers than what they signed up for.”

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