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Burbank to tackle police staff shortage with new recruitment plan

A Burbank police vehicle exits the underground parking garage at police headquarters on April 8.

A Burbank police vehicle exits the underground parking garage at police headquarters on April 8.

(Raul Roa / Burbank Leader)

Staffing shortages are requiring Burbank police officers to work well beyond their normal shifts, driving up overtime costs and burnout while bringing down morale and opportunities to advance, multiple police sources said.

In response, police officials this week plan to present the City Council with a recruitment plan that includes accelerated testing for military personnel and sworn officers seeking transfers from other departments, as well as hiring more human resources employees to process and test applicants.

Police recruiting has become a problem statewide as agencies compete for applicants, interest in the profession wanes amid high-profile officer-involved shootings, and better-funded departments offer incentives others cannot.

“These days it’s harder and harder to attract potential police officers to the field because of some of the publicity that’s been out there,” Councilman David Gordon said. “We’re going to have to look long and hard at what we can do to beef up our boots on the ground.”

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That could mean offering signing bonuses for lateral transfers from other police departments or streamlining the application process “because what we’ve been doing up to this point hasn’t worked,” Councilman Jess Talamantes said.

The Burbank Police Department is budgeted for 160 officers, but just 128 are fully deployable. That’s because 12 positions are vacant, seven recruits are in the academy, 12 officers are either at home or on light duty because of injuries, and one officer is on leave.

Neighboring Glendale, by contrast, has six vacancies, while Pasadena is struggling to fill 19.

Vacancies mean longer hours and at least temporary career stagnation for those who’ve been promoted but cannot yet fully assume their new duties, police sources said.

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Meanwhile, crime and calls for service continue to rise. Burbank closed last year with a combined 9% surge in violent and property crimes.

“We don’t want anybody to be put in a position where their safety would be compromised, or in a position where they could make a mistake while they’re out there working,” said Lt. Jay Hawver, president of the Burbank Police Officers’ Assn.

As an example of morale issues, Burbank officers noted that the staffing gap forced them to withdraw from what would have been their 25th Baker to Vegas Challenge Cup Relay, a 120-mile foot race popular with law enforcement nationwide.

But not all officers mind the extra work — or cash.

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Last year, 21 sworn personnel each earned more than $50,000 in overtime pay. One officer more than doubled his $88,688 salary by logging $114,510 in overtime.

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The agency spent nearly $4.4 million last year on overtime, a large chunk of which went to officers who worked on holidays or reported for mandatory court appearances. By contrast, in 2012, when the agency was down about half a dozen officers, the city spent $3.2 million on overtime.

Historically, officers said, Burbank has been a draw for officers looking to transfer from larger, neighboring agencies for higher compensation, quality of life and specialized assignments.

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But currently nine employees promoted to detective are still working officer assignments because of the staffing shortages, leaving 16 detectives to handle the workload of 25. Meanwhile, one sergeant is still working a detective assignment.

And staffing could get even tighter. Twenty-seven sworn employees are eligible to retire.

Management has been criticized for failing to plan for impending retirements.

To Councilman Will Rogers’ surprise, the Police Department only recently implemented “anticipatory recruitment,” which involves searching to replace candidates who are expected to retire but haven’t yet turned in their papers.

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“That strikes me as a belated change in policy,” Rogers said.

To make Burbank more attractive, elected officials approved a new contract that gives union members a 9.5% salary increase over three years.

But at a recent community meeting, Lt. Eric Deroian said that only 2 in 700 applicants pass the rigorous application process, which includes written and physical agility tests, as well as an oral interview and an extensive background check.

And if they make it that far, candidates must still complete a six-month academy before they can hit the streets.

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The agency plans to hire at least 15 recruits this year, according to a city report.

“I can’t ever, ever remember a time when it was this difficult to fill spots or us ever being as understaffed as we are now,” said one Burbank police veteran, who requested anonymity.

alene.tchekmedyian@latimes.com

Tchekmedyian writes for Times Community News.

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