SAN JOSE -- Help is on the way.
Times have been tough for a police force depleted by budget cuts, retirements and departures. But with 44 cadets going through the paces of the San Jose Police Department's first academy in nearly three years, department veterans are glad to see some relief coming. The new recruits are expected be on the street by July at the earliest.
"It's a beam of light, a ray of hope," said Sgt. Jason Dwyer, the department's spokesman. "They're so excited to be an officer, it's contagious. It takes you back to when you were at that point."
Sgt. Paul Cook is one of the officers charged with reviving and running the academy, the first since 2009. A year before that, a bleak fiscal situation sparked a running exodus of personnel -- a combination of layoffs, early retirements and officers leaving for better pay in other agencies -- that shrunk the number of sworn personnel from about 1,400 to the roughly 1,050 staffing the department today. It is authorized to have about 50 more but has been hard-pressed to fill the spots.
The same shortage persists on patrol, which is fielding about 460 officers on the street and where the cadets are expected to be deployed once they're ready.
Per police protocol, the recruits were not made available for this story.
Cook recognizes the current reality of being a police officer in San Jose, performing the vital duties of law enforcement while political battles and decreasing take-home pay simmer in the background. But he is heartened by the enthusiasm and optimism he sees form the incoming class.
"They're going into a really hard work environment. The people of San Jose should be glad this high-quality group wants to work for them," Cook said.
The current cadet crop, mustered through nine months of recruiting and background checks, hails from all walks of life, with military veterans, business owners and new college graduates in the mix. Some were police hopefuls holding day jobs to keep themselves financially afloat as they waited for the moment San Jose would be hiring new officers.
Residents of the greater Bay Area make up most of the group, but it also features transplants from Utah, Virginia and Minnesota.
By the time they graduate in March, they will have logged 22 weeks -- breaking down to 888 hours -- of classroom, physical, driving and firearm instruction at a training center adjoining Evergreen Valley College. From there, they are expected to undergo an additional four months shadowing a field-training officer before they are deemed ready to head out onto the streets on their own.
Some say the injection of new blood -- similarly sized academy cycles will commence every six months for the foreseeable future -- is a good start but not enough to offset the rate by which seasoned officers are leaving the force. Lateral hires from other departments have slowed to a trickle as the city and police union spar over benefits and pension reform.
"We need a lot more to fix this problem," Cook said.
Sgt. Jim Unland, president of the San Jose Police Officers Association, echoes the sentiment and additionally questions the department's ability to retain these new officers given that they will be the first class under a less-robust benefits package.
"What would you do? Given the choice, and you have a skill set, and everyone wants that skill set, and you can do it anywhere in the Bay Area?" Unland said.
Dwyer said department brass is tackling those issues head-on with the incoming officers and said strong leadership will be vital to keeping them focused on the job.
"We're not going to tell them it's sunshine and roses. It would be unfair to do that," Dwyer said. "It's there, but (they) still chose to be here. They will be expected to meet our standards regardless of what's going on."
There will be no time to waste. Crime rates in the city have been rising, though San Jose remains relatively safe compared with other large cities. Dwyer expects the same sense of service that drove the cadets to apply to carry them through the challenges ahead.
"It's a unique job," he said. "These are people who crave the fulfillment and satisfaction of being a police officer."
Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.
44 cadets, two of them women
888 hours of instruction
16 weeks of field-officer training after graduation
1,050 sworn officers on current force (estimate)
1,400 sworn officers, circa 2008 (estimate)
Source: San Jose Police Department