The battle to find and keep cops
Tight local budgets, risks of job are hurdles
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.
“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.”