MARTINEZ, Calif. – Public safety is a top priority for the Martinez City Council, and the city is willing to open its closed contract with the Martinez Police Officers Association to discuss a possible salary increase, Assistant City Manager Anne Cardwell said.
“This process will need to be navigated with the city’s fiscal sustainability in mind,” she said.
The Martinez Police Officers Association (MPOA) recently used social media sites to say the department is having trouble recruiting and retaining officers, and that pay is about 17 percent the average salary, and is second from the bottom in Contra Costa County.
It cited a city staff study for those statistics.
“The city of Martinez is approximately 16.4-16.9 percent below the average in salary for officers, but approximately 7.6-12.3 percent below average when looking at total compensation, including PERS (California Public Employees Retirement Service), benefits, longevity pay, etc.,” Cardwell said.
“There is a range depending on whether looking at ‘classic’ or PEPRA (California Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act) employees,” she said.
The MPOA postings on social media sites said the city is having trouble recruiting and keeping officers.
Martinez isn’t the only city facing that problem – it’s a growing challenge throughout the country as cities and towns complete for a shrinking pool of those who want to become police officers.
In a report last year, an executive with the Police Foundation said the reasons are many, such as the increase in new, better-paying and appealing jobs, an unemployment rate below 5 percent and an apparent increase in public criticism toward law enforcement.
At the same time, communities are seeking out better-qualified candidates among those willing to forego “business hours” work weeks with weekends off. Applicants need to be certified and tested as well as trained.
In addition, the job is dangerous. In 2016, 135 officers were killed in the line of duty, of which 21 died in ambushes, according to the National law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. The number of fatalities was the highest in five years, and the number of those ambushed was higher than in the past 20 years.
Furthermore, while Martinez and other officers showed restraint last year during a 19-hour standoff that began April 26, 2017, and ended the next day on Howe and Pine streets with a man suspected of murdering his wife in Walnut Creek, some police-associated shootings have caused unrest that has caught national attention.
That’s another reason cities take care in hiring new officers.
Martinez Police Chief Manjit Sappal spoke of various hiring considerations in 2016, when he said his department is looking for good match with the community, but not perfect people. Still, of 100 applicants, only one or two make the grade, he said at the time.
He said those entering one of the academies certified by the California Commission on Peace Officers Standard Training (POST), they must pass a reading and writing examination, a physical agility test, a medical clearance and have a clean motor vehicle history. In addition, an applicant must receive Department of Justice clearance to handle firearms, among other requirements.
The academy itself is a full-time, 888-hour intensive course of study covering 42 subjects, depending on which school the candidate attends.
In 2017, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that while the average growth rate for other professions was 7 percent, the growth for police and detectives was only 4 percent.
The MPOA said the department has six vacancies in a staff of 37, and more may come soon, so the city has no dedicated school resource officer or one dedicated to homeless outreach or the ental Health Evaluation Team or traffic officer at schools.
It noted that command staff, including Sappal, take turns working patrols in addition to their administrative duties.
Cardwell’s response acknowledged some of the challenges.
“One of the core responsibilities for a police department is ensuring that officers are available on patrol to respond to calls from the public, follow up on crime and work on neighborhood quality of life issues. When the patrol division is short, you can fill vacancies with overtime or collapse other assignments to backfill patrol positions. The Patrol Division is a 24 hour/seven day a week, 365 day operation,” she said.
“We have collapsed the Community Resource Officer and a Traffic Enforcement position to backfill patrol vacancies and we are using overtime to cover shifts,” she said.
“In an effort not to collapse our Investigative Division and put detectives in patrol, which would impact services by way of not being able to investigate crimes, we have two commanders and the chief filling in vacant shifts when needed. This is occurring occasionally, and is not on a full-time basis,” she said.
But anytime an organization tries to provide the same level of service with less staffing puts a strain on the organization, Cardwell said.
At the same time, the city itself recently spent several thousand dollars dealing with an unexpected demand letter from a Malibu attorney that claimed Martinez violated the California Voting Rights Act through its at-large elections.
Since no California city has been successful in challenging Kevin Shenkman, the attorney, the Council chose to switch to a by-district election system within the short period it would receive protection from lawsuit from Shenkman or others.
Martinez also has been facing lawsuits, such as from those advocating for open space, legal expenses in other matters, increases in payments for California PERS as well as other expenditures.
“It is correct that the city is facing a number of significant fiscal challenges,” Cardwell said.
The city’s contract with the MPOA, the police department’s labor representative, doesn’t end until June 30, 2019, and is considered closed, although in his own statement last week, Mayor Rob Schroder said under California Government Code it can be modified beginning with the legal meet and confer process.