After years of cutbacks, layoffs -- and now climbing crime rates -- police departments throughout the Bay Area have begun taking on new recruits again.

Over the past five years, of 13 Bay Area police agencies surveyed by this newspaper -- including the California Highway Patrol, Oakland and San Jose -- all but one have shed officers, a total of 981 cops, leaving 6,637. That's a loss of 12.8 percent, forcing some departments to focus on responding to crime rather than preventing it.

But the rush of hiring will reverse the downward trend and begin to rebuild the forces, many of them undermanned and demoralized from years of reductions.

Authorities say the expected infusion of about 480 cops among the 13 agencies will beef up services such as street patrol and anti-drug units and even allow more officers to bust lead-footed drivers. Yet for larger departments, especially Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco, the incoming officers will mostly stabilize the ranks, which are being depleted by retirements and departures.

"We've turned a corner; we've changed directions," said San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed. "We're no longer shrinking, and now it's a question of how long it will take us to grow."

As California plunged into economic crisis in 2008, police departments across the state stopped recruiting new officers and some even laid off cops. San Jose, for the first time in its history, cut 66 officers in June 2011, bringing its ranks down to 1,106. Oakland made cuts a year before, losing 80 cops, which left it with about 695. Both cities have seen crime increase since the cuts.

Oakland's killings hit 131 in 2012, an increase of 19 percent over 110 the previous year. San Jose, long called one of America's safest big cities, had 46 killings last year, a two-decade high.

Police unions have argued the crime increases were directly tied to the cuts, but experts are less confident. Franklin E. Zimring, a crime expert and professor at UC Berkeley's law school, said it's not clear if those increases are troubling trends or "just variation that can come down as easily as it goes up."

But violent crimes and property crimes statewide were up 6.8 percent in the first half of 2012 compared with the previous year, which is the biggest jump the Golden State has seen in 20 years of consistently falling crime, said researcher Mike Males of the San Francisco-based policy group Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

Officers on streets

A still sluggish job market and a small number of police jobs have sparked a feverish response to recent large-scale hiring efforts. Jerri Mannion, 22, of Wilton, was among a crowd that recently turned out for Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office recruit testing.

"It's really competitive," said Mannion, who has applied with eight agencies in the region. "There are so many people trying to get into law enforcement right now. There are so many applicants, you have to be the best of the best to get in."

The approximately 480 officers the 13 departments plan to hire in 2013 would bring their ranks to 7,117. Some of the agencies, such as the California Highway Patrol, had gone several years without a mass recruitment, though many departments occasionally added already trained officers even in the darkest years of the recession.

The current rush of hiring won't necessarily mean a flood of new cops on the street. Authorities will cut some recruits; others will drop out during the months of academy and field training. Other barriers will also thin the influx.

For example, the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office says it has long struggled against deputies leaving for better paying jobs at other departments. So in addition to rebuilding after cuts -- it has 59 fewer deputies than in 2008 -- it must keep up with turnover.

"Our deputies and dispatchers are historically among the lowest paid in the Bay Area," said Sheriff's Office spokesman Jimmy Lee. "Accordingly, we are one of the few law enforcement agencies in the Bay Area that has continuous year-round testing."

Similar to Contra Costa County, the hiring in San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland will mostly replace retiring officers or fill gaps left by layoffs or departures.

Despite this, the departments surveyed said the new officers will allow them to restore or beef up investigation and crime prevention. San Jose police Sgt. Jason Dwyer said the incoming officers could help provide sorely needed manpower to the city's patrol division. That could bring faster response times to calls for help; the more officers, the faster they can deal with requests.

Daly City plans to hire six to eight officers this year and would like to use some of them to work in schools. The department cut back its community service bureau, which leaves two officers to do the work once done by eight. With the four new officers Hayward hopes to hire this year, plans are in place to assign more back to the traffic enforcement unit. Palo Alto is also looking at resurrecting its traffic unit, which was cut in July 2012.

No new services

None of the 13 agencies surveyed by this newspaper said it planned to offer new services. Some of the changes, such as having victims of less serious crimes fill out their own reports online, are here to stay.

In Oakland, the bolstered staffing will be part of an effort to bring officers into neighborhoods where they can get to know the community and who is behind crimes.

"When you have more police, you have less crime, but it's not just the number," said Oakland Mayor Jean Quan. "It's having them deployed on a geographic basis where they actually know the community and strengthen community policing. Those two things bring down crime significantly."

Staff writers Natalie Neysa Alund, Erin Ivie, Daniel Jimenez and Robert Salonga contributed to this report. Contact Joshua Melvin at 650-348-4335. Follow him at Twitter.com/melvinreport.