Just five months ago, Alameda Police Chief Nishant Joshi faced a dire staffing crisis. Almost one third of the 88 sworn positions in his department were vacant, giving him 24 jobs to fill as quickly as possible.
He wasn’t alone in that predicament. Many California police departments have reported serious hiring challenges in a persistently tight labor market over the past several years.
But Joshi’s city council in April gave him something exceptional to lure candidates to Alameda: a $75,000 enlistment bonus in addition to regular pay that starts at $110,000 a year.
After receiving 170 applications from all over the country, the Alameda Police Department now has enough officers enrolled in academies to bring its projected total vacancies down to 10 by early next year. Joshi credits the bonuses, in part, for attracting applicants to a city with an expensive cost of living.
“There are million dollar homes here. The average rent here is also $3,000,” said Joshi, who hopes the extra cash bonus could ease the financial burden on officers who are expected to live in the East Bay’s pricey housing market.
Alameda’s high dollar bonuses are an attention-grabbing example of the fierce competition among California law enforcement agencies trying to replenish the ranks of officers who retired or changed careers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, cities are offering lucrative new contracts and incentives for law enforcement officers throughout the state.
The Los Angeles City Council last month approved a four-year $384 million contract for police officers that sharply raises starting pay and provides retention bonuses to officers with as little as two years of experience. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors in April approved a contract that raises starting pay for entry-level officers to about $108,000, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. The city is offering $5,000 signing bonuses, too.
Closer to Alameda in the East Bay, Richmond in October adopted a police contract that raises pay by 20% over 26 months. Another Alameda neighbor, El Cerrito, offered a $10,000 signing bonus to attract new recruits.
Alameda Mayor Marilyn Ashcraft acknowledged the $75,000 bonus has been “a little bit eye-popping.” But, she added, “more of what I hear is envy” from leaders in other cities who would like to match or beat the offer.
The danger, said retired Redondo Beach Police Department lieutenant Diane Goldstein, is a widening divide between the cities and counties that can afford to pay big bonuses to address their staffing shortages and those that can’t.
“This whole signing bonus started a few years back. It creates police agencies of the haves and the have-nots,” said Goldstein, the executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a nonprofit that supports improving police-community relations.
“It may be a well-intentioned policy, thinking they can attract the best and brightest, but it creates inequities potentially in policing,” she said.
More California police, and more accountability
The police hiring perks come as California cities address conflicting demands from their constituents after the civil rights protests that followed George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020.
A January 2023 survey found that 49% of adults say police spending in their area should be increased while 13% said spending should be decreased, according to the Pew Research Center.
Some Californians are especially concerned about rising crime. The Oakland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, for instance, in July wrote a letter calling on city leaders to declare a state of emergency due to rising crime.
“People are moving out of Oakland in droves. They are afraid to venture out of their homes to go to work, shop, or dine in Oakland and this is destroying economic activity. Businesses, small and large, struggle and close, tax revenues vanish, and we are creating the notorious doom-loop where life in our city continues to spiral downward,” the letter read.
But Americans after Floyd’s killing have also asked for “major changes” in the way policing is practiced, according to a Gallup poll from 2020. Those changes include holding officers accountable for abuses of power and capping law enforcement spending in the interest of hiring social workers or other professionals to respond to more emergency calls.
California lawmakers responded to those appeals by passing bills that empower a commission to decertify police officers accused of misconduct and require the state Department of Justice to investigate most fatal police shootings.
This year police accountability advocates pressed for other bills, including one that would limit the use of police stops for bicyclists and drivers for low-level traffic stops and minor infractions, like expired license plates.
“Instead of putting more money toward police departments and creating those huge hiring bonuses, cities could look at the moment we’re currently in and say maybe it’s time to reduce our police force and invest more in alternatives,” said Eliana Machefsky, a legal fellow for the National Police Accountability Project.
Natasha Minsker, a policy adviser at the nonprofit Smart Justice California, said law enforcement agencies should focus on changing their cultures.
“Pay them a fair wage, whatever that is. People should get paid a fair wage,” Minsker said about about the recent hikes 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 recruits
Many California police chiefs say they’re trying to figure out how to both fill their ranks while also improving relationships in their communities.
El Cerrito, a city of 26,000 nestled north of Berkeley, has faced staffing issues of its own. The average price of a home hovers around $1 million, just like Alameda and their neighbors in the inner Bay Area.
“I think if you are motivated by higher pay, there’s not much we can do to stop you,” said El Cerrito Mayor Lisa Motoyama, who said she has little wiggle room to fix staffing woes in the city’s $14 million police budget. “There’s no way we can match Alameda. We can’t compete.”
From 2020 to 2021, El Cerrito lost 21 officers.
Among those departures, nine were retirements or resignations and 12 transferred to other police and sheriff’s departments, including Solano, Marin, Walnut Creek, and Contra Costa, according to the police chief.
“The most common reasons cited in our exit interviews were the desire to be closer to home or have more opportunities for personal growth in a new agency,” El Cerrito Police Chief Paul Keith said in an email.
Keith first noticed the staffing crisis after the summer of 2020. Ever since then, he has continued to hear officers express dissatisfaction with their careers.“They also predominantly left for agencies that paid more money,” he added.
The city stepped in with some new perks, including free gym memberships and dry cleaning. Then it kicked in some extra money.
“We tried to institute a recruitment bonus which is nowhere near that $75,000,” Motoyama said. Instead, the El Cerrito department offered a $10,000 signing bonus.
“Four months ago we had a big swearing in, lots of women. Whatever we’re doing is working,” she said.
As of this summer, El Cerrito has 36 officers, leaving just one vacancy.