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The diminishing blue line 

Local law-enforcement agencies find that interest in the profession is dwindling

Being a cop isn't the draw it used to be.

Supervisors and recruiters at Central Coast law-enforcement agencies say they're watching longtime officers retire and are struggling to find new hires to take their place. Even as employment opportunities increase, the pool of candidates is shrinking.

"People don't flock to the job as they used to," said the San Luis Obispo Police Department's Capt. Daniel Blanke. "When I came to work here in 1980, I took the written test in a room with 100 people the maximum amount at the time and I was one of three that got hired."

Compare that to Pismo Beach Police Department administrative secretary Julie Castaneda's picture of the process these days. She explained that 20 years ago, 20 applicants would apply for just one position. Now, the department has two openings and only six candidates have applied.

The job of a police officer, Castaneda said, has become a hard sell.

"A lot has to do with the Baby Boomers retiring, and 'generation next' is not seeing law enforcement as a desirable career," she said.

So what's so undesirable about the job? Blanke theorized that a changing perception of law enforcement may be at least partially to blame. What was once considered a prestigious career has taken on some baggage over the years especially in a college town.

"Some think any encounter with police is going to be negative. We're constantly fighting a perception that police don't like college students," Blanke said. "But a lot of us are Cal Poly graduates and the university and everything about it is close to our hearts."

There's also the perception that police work is dangerous work. It always has been, but the risks may be outweighing the benefits in possible recruits' minds these days.

"Police officers always have the potential to be shot, killed, and run over. Everything that has happened in Los Angles has happened here," Blanke said. "It just doesn't happen as frequently."

Whatever the reason for a lack of new hires, the disparity is creating a staffing gap, forcing departments to make do with what they have and stretch their resources to maintain public safety.

"When departments are down officers, it could delay response times to routine and emergency calls," said Pismo Beach Police Chief Joe Cortez, who explained that his department is just maintaining its minimum staff level.

Still, he's reluctant to bulk up his staff just for the sake of greater numbers in the ranks.

"We have not lowered our standards. We could bring in unqualified officers, but the public would pay for that in the long run," Cortez said. "We don't want to violate that trust [with the community] by hiring people that are going to make the wrong decisions."

Departments facing the hiring crunch are also suffering from a loss of institutional memory. As more and more veteran law-enforcement officers depart local agencies, their years of on-the-job know-how leave with them. New officers are learning on the job with fewer trained eyes to watch over their rookie years.

"With turnover of experienced officers leaving and new officers coming in, there's a learning curve. When an experienced officer leaves or retires, that's a lot of community knowledge that walks out of the door," Cortez said.

The California Highway Patrol is facing similar challenges, according to California Highway Patrol Coastal Division recruitment coordinator Heather Mangus.

"All of our offices are understaffed," she said. "As of February 2007, SLO County has 96 officers. The total number of officers the offices are allotted is 107. So just within SLO County we are down at least 10 CHP officers."

She attributes the CHP's need for new hires to a high rate of retirement, transfers, on-the-job injuries, and natural attrition.

"More officers are leaving than coming through," she said. "There's not a balance."

Helping to steady its employment imbalance, the CHP held one of its largest graduating ceremonies in years as it swore in 136 new officers in Sacramento on March 23, according to a press release. Of the 136 new officers, 21 will be working within the Coastal Division.

The CHP's recent hires show that the future of law enforcement isn't totally bleak there is a flashing red-and-blue light at the end of the tunnel. The pay helps. A local police officer's compensation for potentially being "shot, killed, and run over" during any given shift varies. According to the Pismo Beach Police Department, salaries run $51,640 to $62,768 annually plus benefits for new hires. The California Highway Patrol, which has offices in San Luis Obispo and Templeton, offers a starting salary of $50,000 to help attract potential employees.

Still, even pay and benefits can create potential challenges.

"A lot of people only see the tangibles benefits, salary, and retirement but what they need to think about is what we do every day issue citations, take accident reports, assist people on freeways, etc.," Mangus said. "We are trying to weed out the people that will change jobs in five years."

Jack Lavers is one person who was initially attracted to the tangibles but was later captivated by the idea of "helping the community as a career."

"It's always been in the back of my mind," the 23-year-old San Luis Obispo resident said of his curiosity about being a police officer. "Some people consider [the salary] not enough to put your life on the line every day, but you get a chance to fulfill a service that benefits the entire community."

Lavers, who currently works with disabled youth in Grover Beach, has recently submitted an application to the Pismo Beach Police Department and will begin the evaluation process shortly.

For others considering a career change and joining a local law enforcement agency but who fear the loss of financial support while pursuing the position several local departments offer pay to recruits while they attend a police academy to help ease the transition.

Currently, the Pismo Beach Police Department offers a salary of $21.53 per hour and full tuition payment for cadets while attending the Allan Hancock College Police Academy in Santa Maria, according to the department's web site.

The Allan Hancock College Police Academy is offered three times a year with two full-time, 20-week sessions and one part-time, 11-month session that meet the basic state requirement of 780 hours of training in such areas as ethics, first aid, gang awareness, and patrol techniques.

According to Al Avila, director of Law Enforcement Training for Allan Hancock College, of the 30 recruits admitted to each session, 15 percent drop out. On top of that, the students who graduate aren't always guaranteed a job.

"The program is extremely rigorous," Avila said.

It's not as tough, however, as the outlook for attracting more police recruits.

Pismo Beach's Cortez doesn't see the Central Coast law enforcement-staffing problem improving anytime soon: "The challenge that we are facing now is going to multiply in the upcoming years."

Staff Writer Kai Beech can be reached at kbeech@newtimesslo.com.

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