With the recent graduation of five police recruits, the Burbank Police Department is now comprised of 143 sworn officers.
The department’s budget can accommodate 160, and since January, more than a dozen officers from various ranks have been promoted, leaving openings in their former positions.
Burbank police use shift deployments and pay overtime in an effort to continue to provide the best service possible to the community with less officers, officials said.
Not being fully staffed is due, at least in part, to a shortage of qualified applicants, and the national conversation about police, race and use of force. Police also said fewer people are choosing law enforcement as a career.
“It started prior to Ferguson, and became more intense after Ferguson and the more celebrated incidents,” Burbank Police Chief Scott LaChasse said. He was referring to the scrutiny placed on police after an unarmed, 18-year-old black male was shot to death by a white police officer in Ferguson, MO in August 2014 . The incident led to protests in Ferguson and cities across the country, and eventually the involvement of the U.S. Department of Justice.
“You don’t have to have an adverse situation in Burbank,” LaChasse said. “If it’s in Ferguson or New York City, people don’t realize there’s a difference among all the various agencies.”
The Beverly Hills Police Dept. and the Santa Monica Police Dept., the highest paid in the county, are also seeing fewer qualified applicants, LaChasse said, adding that Beverly Hills is spending about $100,000 to examine why that is the case.
The California Police Chiefs Assoc. acknowledged the difficulty agencies are having recruiting qualified candidates and created a recruitment work group to study the matter and develop a “best/smart practice,” among other goals, LaChasse said.
Burbank, too, is looking at ways to improve recruitment, and training will begin in a few weeks for a special recruitment team of 17 officers.
Police Lt. Eric Deroian said these officers will be very familiar with the recruitment process, and be able to answer detailed questions about retirement benefits, for example, and from those with military backgrounds.
Recruiting a diverse workforce, that mirrors the population of not just Burbank, but the greater L.A. area, was also important, Deroian said. The recruitment team itself will be diverse in terms of age, gender and special assignments.
Mayor Bob Frutos, a former police officer of more than 25 years with the Los Angeles Police Dept., said having less officers on the force can be a challenge for an officer responding to certain calls for service, such as a domestic violence situation, that may require additional assistance.
“If you don’t have extra bodies to go with you, what do you do?” Frutos said.
Frutos also said Burbank is “competing with every other agency in the state of California when there is a shortage of qualified people who want to enter the profession. The LAPD is recruiting; there are [1,300] vacancies with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Dept., and they are actively recruiting; the California Highway Patrol is recruiting. Everybody is seeing this.”
In a news article from May, it was reported that the L.A. County Sheriff’s would need about 1,300 deputies by July to fill a staffing shortage. The issue is not money, rather finding qualified candidates, the article states, adding that it could threaten reform efforts in the nation’s largest sheriff’s department. The sheriff’s union estimated the gap to be even larger, at 1,700 deputies.
The highway patrol in early August released a statement that they would now be accepting online applications for the position of officer on a continuous basis. With this new continuous application process in place, the CHP’s goal is to hire 600 cadets per year.
Burbank too, will soon have a continuous application process, police said.
But for some, not having sufficient resources remains a concern.
“We’ve been short [staffed] for a number of years,” Lt. Jay Hawver, president of the Burbank Police Officers Assoc., said. “I don’t don’t know if most agencies are fully staffed, but we have been pretty close.”
“At the end of day we would like the department to be fully staffed,” Hawver added. “When we are fully staffed, we can safely and effectively accomplish the goals of the organization. There’s a reason the city chose the sworn numbers [of officers] to be at a certain level, and that’s to meet the expectations of the community…when you don’t have staffing at the numbers they are supposed to be, something will suffer.”
Police response times to “Priority 1” calls, or those which are life-threatening or involve violent crimes in progress, stands at a little over three minutes through March of this year, according to police. During that same time in 2014, police responded to Priority 1 calls in just under four minutes.
While there has been an uptick in some types of crimes, which is not unique to Burbank either, the organization seems to have gotten past some of the more serious leadership and training issues it struggled with before an outside agency was brought in to keep extra eyes on the organization.
Hawver said that despite these gains and how that may appear on the outside, the organization could not continue at this pace.
“It’s like running an engine at 10,000 RPM, constantly,” he said. “You can’t run at maximum speed without an issue or problems.”
It takes a toll, Hawver said.
Police examine calls for service, historically, and then match personnel accordingly, along with paying out overtime, to handle calls for service with existing staff, said Police Sgt. Claudio Losacco, spokesperson for the department, and a former union president and vice president.
In 2013, the overtime paid out to officers was $80,675.11; in 2014 it rose to $110,941.71, police said.
As of Aug. 1, $70,777.90 has been paid out in overtime.
Losacco said this is a limited snapshot of the overtime paid to sworn members back-filling behind some vacancies in patrol, and does not account for all the vacancies that need to be covered.
At the moment, there are some detectives who are still working patrol instead of as detectives due to the department not being fully staffed, Losacco said.
Losacco said that compared to previous years, there are fewer officers in the detective bureau, which includes a gang detail.
One of the 16 detectives handles gang cases, but at the moment there is not a gang unit as those officers focus on patrol, to maintain the level of service required by first responders — the men and women driving the black and whites, he said.
“Answering calls for service has to be the department’s primary operational mission,” Losacco said.
LaChasse said he didn’t want the public to think there was a gang problem that was not being addressed.
“Burbank has historically not had a huge gang problem, it’s more graffiti,” LaChasse said. “If it’s developing, we draw resources from other places. We have to be adroit about resources, things ebb and flow all the time.”
LaChasse also said there were vice/narcotics detectives working gangs.
“There are a lot of opportunities this department offers that others don’t offer, and that is because we are more diversified,” LaChasse said. “Another argument is to have everyone do everything well.”
Burbank was among the few police departments in Los Angeles County with an air support unit, LaChasse said. There are also opportunities to work on an integrated task force with federal, state and other municipalities that other police departments have never participated in.
Hawver, the current union president, noted there is a relationship between being fully staffed and special assignments within the department.
“If we are fully staffed, it gives people the opportunity to work special assignments,” Hawver said. “If we are not fully staffed, you don’t have that opportunity. That’s huge for us. This comes back to being competitive.”
Hawver acknowledged some of the reasons behind being short staffed, including the increased scrutiny placed on law enforcement. And, the number of college graduates looking to a career in law enforcement isn’t as high as in previous years.
It was important for the department to stay competitive, Hawver said, and pointed to a clause in the union’s agreement with the city that says a survey of 10 other cities would be used to help determine the compensation package.
So how does Burbank rank, compared to the 10 cities in the survey, which include Santa Monica, Long Beach, Torrance and Pasadena?
Hawver prefaced his comment by saying the union and city were in negotiations for a new contract and wanted to be respectful of that process.
He then said: “We rank near the bottom of the list.”
Hawver said that to be fair, most other cities are having an issue attracting qualified candidates. But other agencies may may be having less difficulty.
The net monthly salary for an officer joining the Burbank Police Dept. from the academy is $5,385, or $64,620 a year, police said.
According to a 2013 U.S. News & World Report survey on patrol officer salaries, law enforcement in California are the best paid in the nation. The median annual salary for patrol officers was $56,130 in 2013.
There is “no magic formula” about the number of police to have in a city, LaChasse said.
“West Covina has the same population as Burbank and has less than 100 officers,” LaChasse said. “We need to sit down and look at everything in perspective….we must also continue to vet candidates carefully, we don’t want to buy a problem for the future; we don’t want to hire just to hire.”
When asked if Burbank would be seen as less competitive, LaChasse responded: “If it’s true for us, wouldn’t it be true for other departments?”
It is important not to panic in these situations, LaChasse said.
“We are doing things other departments have copied, including [the implementation of] our mental health team and use of predictive policing and analytics,” LaChasse said. “We can’t continue to operate like we did in 1994 — things are always changing.”