A small pool of qualified rookies and an overheated political climate are making it difficult for the Costa Mesa Police Department to fill a dozen vacancies with desirable candidates, sources familiar with the hiring process say.
Police agencies statewide are fiercely competing for solid academy graduates, and few experienced officers are seeking transfers to the CMPD because of their unease with the city's ongoing debate over public employee compensation, according to one current and two recently departed police officers.
Though new hires would come in under the terms of the department's current contract, which a management expert called competitive, the agreement expires in 2014 and negotiations for new terms are expected to be contentious. The city opened negotiations with an association that represents general employees Tuesday by offering steep salary cuts.
Though three of five members of the council say overhauling employee compensation is necessary to ensure that the city can provide services in the future — an argument challenged by their opponents — one officer who recently left the CMPD for another police department said political strife is making Costa Mesa a hard place to work.
"They took what I always knew as one of the top tier OC agencies and turned it into a political hotbed of controversy and a social experiment in overly radical political reform," the officer, who requested anonymity, wrote in an email. "The end result is what we have today: a great agency that has been decimated, cut to the core and forced into a position of fighting not just the enemy on the streets but the very employer who employs you."
Mayor Jim Righeimer, who has led a majority of the City Council in pushing for efficiencies, sharply disagreed, calling the suggestion of an applicant shortage a crisis manufactured by those with a political agenda.
"The reality is there's a lot of great officers in really great departments who would love to work at Costa Mesa. They're there," Righeimer said. "The idea that there's only so many good officers available is self-inflicted."
He and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger called the notion of an applicant shortage nothing more than a red herring floated by their political opponents in advance of upcoming contract negotiations with the Costa Mesa Police Officers Assn. (POA), a collective-bargaining unit that represents police officers.
Though Costa Mesa has political problems, police and management experts who advise cities said agencies countywide are competing fiercely for the same applicants.
"Many agencies close to us, and throughout the state, are aggressively hiring police officers, as are we," Costa Mesa Police Chief Tom Gazsi said. "It's proving to be a challenge, not only for us, but for other agencies as well to find qualified, suitable candidates. It is a very competitive market right now."
Gazsi declined additional comment on Costa Mesa's current recruitment process.
Mario Casas, president of the Orange County Training Managers Assn., which represents more than 40 law enforcement agencies in Southern California, agreed that the market is competitive.
Law-enforcement agencies are offering similar hiring packages with no major gap in salaries and benefits, he said, adding that marketable candidates can join their choice of departments.
"It's just the nature of the beast, to be honest with you," said Casas, who is also an Irvine police officer.
Costa Mesa's pay and benefits are in line with other agencies, but what's atypical about the CMPD, he said, is the number of employees leaving its ranks.
Thirty-eight sworn personnel, including two captains and a chief, have departed since 2010, according to the city's human resources department. That number includes terminations, transfers, new jobs, other reasons for leaving and many retirements.
"That's quite a bit for a department their size," Casas said.
Officers have recently left the CMPD for cities that are viewed as more stable, such as Irvine, Newport Beach and Beverly Hills.
Of the 38 who left, 15 transferred to other departments, 15 retired, four resigned and four were terminated, according to numbers from human resources.
Reduced staffing, or the possibility of future cuts, can push officers out of an agency like Costa Mesa, according to Casas.
"Whenever a new police officer feels like their career at a police department is threatened … that's generally when they start looking elsewhere," he said.
Righeimer disagreed with Casas, saying the turnover rate was typical and that Costa Mesa can prepare in advance for retirements.
More vacancies could be coming.
In December, Chief Gazsi said he expected to lose 20 officers in an 18-month period.
The hiring and training process for officers can take months, in some cases more than a year.
In April, the city announced openings for 10 full-time and 10 reserve officers.
The department in May began accepting applications from police academy graduates and those expecting to be accepted by an academy.
The vast majority of applicants vetted so far do not meet the department's standards for employment, data provided by the city's personnel department show.
Of the 442 recruits and academy graduates who applied to the CMPD between May 24 and July 11, only five passed the physical, written and oral tests, according to the city's human resources department.
Most, some 370, were disqualified before even testing because they didn't meet basic requirements, such as having a clean criminal or driving record, valid driver's license, good credit report, high school diploma or a history free of recent drug use, a source in the department said.
Righeimer questioned whether the city's criteria for hiring officers is too stringent, though he did not elaborate on standards that should be reexamined.
"Who decides what's eligible?" Righeimer said. "I've asked before. Some are good reasons, some aren't. For someone to say, 'We're going to make the standard so high that anyone that is 27, 28 years old with a blemish in their life' is too high. … I just think in general the standards need to be looked at and what's the reality."
Costa Mesa has not exhausted the applicant pool. Between July 12 and July 31, an additional 511 people applied to work at the Police Department, according to human resources. It's yet to be determined if they're more or less qualified than previous groups of applicants.
Current staffing levels
Five officers have joined the CMPD so far in 2013, the first to be hired since 2008. Most of them shifted from working as reserve officers to full-time sworn personnel, but a hiring gap remains.
A department restructuring, loss of employees and current hiring crunch have led to a situation in which the CMPD is operating with 120 sworn personnel — 12 officers below the already reduced 132 that council members authorized in their 2013-14 preliminary budget.
"I think that the reduced number of officers is unsafe for both the officers and the community and that the community should do something about it," former Costa Mesa Police Chief Dave Snowden said in an email.
Snowden has hired six officers from the CMPD since becoming Beverly Hills police chief in 2004.
Councilwoman Wendy Leece said a big part of the problem stems from the decision by the City Council majority, to which she votes in opposition, to set what she called "arbitrary" staffing levels for sworn police officers.
This left the city unprepared, she argued, when the state began releasing more prison inmates into the community as part of a court-ordered directive to reduce prison overcrowding.
"Now we're really in trouble," Leece said.
She floated the idea of offering a hiring bonus to attract officers but said there's no easy fix to close the hiring gap.
"I thought about it, and I don't think there is a solution," she said. "We're just going to have to wait it out."
Leece agreed with the notion that politics have scared officers away from Costa Mesa and said there's no reason to assume qualified recruits would line up for a job there when they have other options.
"For my colleagues to say that they know that there's plenty of applications is disingenuous," she said.
Mensinger said he believes that he and Righeimer have the support of most of the CMPD's members, who understand that pension benefits must be trimmed if they are to remain sustainable, but that a vocal minority is working behind the scenes to discredit proposed reforms.
The two city councilmen said the idea of a hiring shortage is a tactic to get the upper hand before the city and the POA meet at the table for negotiations next year. They cited an online "playbook" for contract negotiations published by the law firm Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, which represents police bargaining units.
Righeimer said such tactics include advising academy recruits to avoid applying to departments involved in contract negotiations.
The firm does not represent the Costa Mesa POA, but it used to. The association cut ties with it last year, shortly after a private eye affiliated with the firm followed Righeimer's car home from a bar one night and called police, saying he appeared to be driving drunk. Righeimer, who said he had no alcohol that night, was examined by a police officer and cleared.
Representatives from the POA did not return calls or respond to an email seeking comment for this story.
History of political tensions
In April 2011, some 20 officers began the process of leaving the CMPD in anticipation of layoffs. At the time, that was more than 10% of the Police Department's 144 sworn officers.
The city commissioned a consultant, Management Partners, in February 2011 to conduct a study on restructuring the department. Management Partners later that year recommended reducing the authorized sworn level from 143 to 136.
On June 20, 2011, two days before the City Council would approve the restructuring of the department with even more reductions in an early-morning vote, then-interim Police Chief Steve Staveley resigned, writing in a four-page letter that he felt the council meddled in the department and fabricated a financial crisis.
Tensions between the City Council and the Police Department have existed for years while the council majority focused on reducing public-employee costs.
"I think it's had a very negative effect on the overall department," Casas said.
However, Righeimer and Mensinger have long argued that the only reason they are pursuing reforms is because the city will one day have trouble funding its pension obligations — or will have to sacrifice essential services to do so.
Snowden said he believes young officers are fleeing from or avoiding Costa Mesa because of the possibility that politics could one day affect their job security.
"I think when a young officer is considering a long career … he's looking at what's best for him and his family," said Snowden.
By the numbers
Applicants to the Police Department received between May 24 and July 31: 953
Applicants disqualified for not meeting basic requirements: 422
Applicants still waiting for screening against basic requirements: 266
Applicants in the oral, physical and written testing phase: 221
Applicants deemed eligible for hiring consideration so far: 5
— Source: Costa Mesa human resources department as of July 31