South Pasadena is the kind of place residents proudly say is “sleepy,” where cops are more likely to deal with kids skipping school and house burglaries than with gangs and murders.
But the small city’s 36-officer department pays its officers an average of 15% less than other departments, including the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
And with these bigger agencies and others now desperate for more officers, South Pasadena is looking like an increasingly sweet target.
On Wednesday, more than half of the department’s officers showed up for a makeshift job fair attended by recruiters from the Sheriff’s Department at Gus’s Barbecue, a landmark restaurant in the heart of town.
The South Pasadena Police Officers’ Assn. organized the event, saying the city faces an exodus as other departments race to fill their ranks at significantly higher pay.
“The officers here love to serve South Pasadena, but we have to do right by our families,” said Officer Craig Cooper, the union’s president.
In recent weeks, two officers announced they were seeking jobs with higher pay at the Glendale Police Department.
With them gone, the South Pasadena police won’t have a motorcycle unit.
City leaders were caught off guard by the recruitment effort, which some dismissed as an effort by the officers to receive more than the 2.25% pay raise now on the negotiating table.
“This is a step beyond anything I have seen or heard of before with officers seeking other jobs,” Councilman Michael Cacciotti said.
Police Chief Dan Watson said he doubts his department will suffer a major blow but said he was disturbed by the whole affair.
“It personally bothers me when departments go after other departments’ employees instead of recruiting their own,” said Watson, a former LAPD commander.
South Pasadena finds itself in the same position as other small cities without the heavy tax base needed to significantly increase police pay. By contrast, the LAPD and the Sheriff’s Departments received significant cash infusions to hire more officers. The Sheriff’s Department has recruited 1,000 deputies this year, thanks in part to an 18% pay increase, while the LAPD took in 540.
Councilman Mike Ten said he was not surprised by the strong reaction of South Pasadena police officers.
“I understand the market forces,” Ten said. “They’re highly skilled and in high demand and yeah, money plays a factor.”
Ten said the city has been unable to offer more competitive salaries because South Pasadena’s tax base comes largely from small businesses rather than big box retailers and car dealers.
“We’ve made decisions in this city the last couple of decades that we’re not going to be a sales tax revenue generating city,” Ten said. “And we’re not going to be a city doing a tremendous amount of housing expansion either.”
The councilman said one solution would be a November ballot measure for a special public safety tax. That money could be used to boost officer pay, among other things.
He said South Pasadena has looked into contracting with the Sheriff’s Department. But many residents oppose having an outside law enforcement agency patrolling the city, preferring to deal with officers who know the city well.
Councilman David Margrave said he was shocked that the recruiting session took place.
“We did give them a raise and we went through a good portion of our surplus funds” to do it, Margrave said.
He said that while he can understand the temptation for higher salaries, he also noted that South Pasadena is still a desirable place to work because it’s relatively safe and officers can get to know the community.
At Wednesday’s recruiting session, four Sheriff’s Department representatives in uniform made a presentation to about 20 South Pasadena officers.
A sheriff’s sergeant said a polygraph and psychological exam is required but they wouldn’t have to go through another academy.
An LAPD recruiter dropped off information but didn’t stick around.
South Pasadena pays officers up to $4,947 a month compared with monthly pay of $5,996 in West Covina, $5,954 in Pasadena and $5,476 in San Marino. The LAPD pays as much as $5,889, while the Sheriff’s Department pays $5,950.
City Manager Lilian Myers dismissed the recruitment session as a police association bargaining tactic. But police officers say the recruiting drive underscores their frustration, noting that most cannot afford to live in South Pasadena.
Cooper, the union president, said that although 70% of the officers have been with the department more than a decade, only one sergeant lives in the city, having purchased his home decades before.
“They’re offering us less than a cost-of-living increase and we’re due to pay $200 more on medical next year,” Cooper said. “I’m considering the Sheriff’s Department or Glendale myself.”