How Do We Stop the SJPD Exodus?
By Patrol Sgt. Damian Bortolotti
As I stood in day shift briefing recently, I could not help but think long and hard about the predicament the City of San Jose has gotten itself into. For so long this city had at its disposal one of the greatest police departments in the country. It was staffed by highly motivated, efficient, well trained, and committed police officers and communications personnel. Now they are leaving in droves causing dangerously low staffing levels, which have negatively impacted emergency response times and contributed to the rise in crime.
I stood there and watched as yet another 20-year veteran police officer attended her last briefing as she had recently resigned. It is a hard pill to swallow every time an officer I know resigns, but I know that they all do it because it is best decision for them and their families. I cannot not help but think of how it seems that for every officer who leaves, the crime rate in San Jose increases proportionately.
I work as a patrol sergeant in the Almaden area, and I have seen some pretty heinous crimes occur recently. Last month, there was a robbery at the Almaden Expressway/Camden Avenue Safeway where three suspects assaulted a girl scout and took the cookies that she was selling. Just recently a young man was stabbed to death in an Almaden area park, an elderly man was carjacked and left lying in the street and a married couple were tied up and robbed in their very own home. Sadly, burglaries are up over 23%, auto thefts are up over 71%, and home invasion robberies are up nearly 65% citywide compared to 2011 (editor's note: all statistics obtained from the San Jose Police Department).
Yet, as the weeks go by, more San Jose police officers resign or retire early. As of April 3rd, the San Jose Police Department now has 923 ready officers compared to over 1,300 just three years ago. All of these officers were lost to resignations and early retirements.
Why are all of these officers leaving? The answer is very simple: Security and Trust. The security of knowing what their pay will be in the future and trust that those in charge of this city will keep their word. In both instances, San Jose has failed. Without these very important principles, officers will continue the exodus caused by looming pay cuts that will result from the implementation of Measure B.
Mayor Reed has recently said that public safety and restoring capacity at the police department must be the City’s top priority. I’m glad to hear him say that, but this statement confuses me because while he has been working hard to reopen four libraries way too many San Jose police officers have been resigning and taking early retirements. Public safety must truly be the number one priority if we are to bring our city back from the brink. Other city programs or departments may have to suffer. That is our reality.
Reed constantly says we need to have pension reform in order hire more police officers; pension reform that would be achieved by enacting Measure B. The irony here is that the pension reform that Reed says is the fix, is actually the cause of the exodus. What many citizens in San Jose don’t realize is that Measure B doesn’t change what current employees receive when they retire. The “reform” is that it forces these employees to pay much more for that retirement while they are still working: 16% more for their retirement and up to 8% more for retiree medical.
City employees are already struggling with a 10% pay giveback that occurred in 2011, and San Jose police officers are paying a little over 19% of their salary into their retirement and retiree medical. That percentage will increase to over 21% this June. When you add up all of those percentages, that means San Jose police officers are looking at having their take home pay reduced by 55 percent! If this happens, these police officers will not be able to survive on what they take home. The very real threat of these pay cuts is what is driving current officers away. Not to mention the belief that Measure B is illegal, and that the City violated state law when it put Measure B on the ballot.
What about police dispatchers and call takers? They are also leaving in droves. Currently SJPD communications is down to a full duty staff of only 122. They are authorized to have 162. Things are so bad they are working mandatory overtime to make up for the staffing shortfalls. These dedicated men and women are leaving San Jose for many of the same reasons as the police officers. They are also difficult to recruit and take a long time to train. Also like officers, dispatchers who work at other police agencies will not come here to work. So San Jose can hire only raw recruits. This takes away the ability of the city to take an experienced officer or dispatcher and put them to work very quickly.
So, San Jose has a big problem: fewer and fewer police officers and more and more crime. To fix this situation we need to start by doing something that actually will retain the officers and dispatchers we currently have. If Mayor Reed and members of the city council are serious about doing this, I respectfully have a suggestion that I’m confident would work. I have talked to many officers and communications personnel who are actively applying to other agencies. They have all said that my idea would make a huge difference in their financial security and they would most likely stay. I also believe that this would give the morale of the department a huge boost:
• At a minimum, restore police department salaries to what they were before the 10% pay-giveback.
• Publicly state that you will not institute any of the Measure B provisions that will reduce take home pay until the courts decide if they are actually legal.
This would halt the mass exodus and allow SJPD to start rebuilding. Unless the resignations and early retirements stop, the officers who are hired in the future will not be able to keep pace with those that are running for the door.
Damain Bortolotti is a San Jose Police Sergeant and is also a member of the San Jose Police Officers' Association Board of Directors