If the Fresno Police Department hopes to swell its ranks to the seven-year high outlined in Mayor Lee Brand’s new budget, the city may want to find a way to pay its new officers more.
The Fresno County grand jury delivered a glowing report last week on the department’s training programs and use-of-force practices. But there was one exception: Staffing issues are hindering officers who want to get a little extra practice at things like de-escalation, which became a major focus after the 2016 shooting of Dylan Noble. The report takes it one step further by saying that Fresno’s starting salary for officers has not kept pace with its neighbors, noting that Fresno starts at $55,858 – more than $13,000 less than Clovis and $15,000 less than Dinuba.
For Chief Jerry Dyer, measuring his department’s pay to another is comparing apples to oranges. Fresno officers receive a variety of bonus pay for things like working at night, on a moment’s notice or completing a career milestone. They enjoy perks like four-day weekends and having to contribute less of their pay into one of the best-funded pension programs in the country. The city also just authorized a 3 percent raise for all officers and a 5 percent increase for senior officers in the next few years.
$55,858The average starting salary of a new Fresno police officer, according to a Fresno County grand jury report.
Dyer also wanted the public to know that the department has never cut its training budget – even in the heart of the recession. All of his officers receive a minimum of 60-100 hours per year of training.
The chief is confident his recruitment team will be up to the challenge of expanding the force from 772 officers to 825 in the next year.
But Fresno Police Officers’ Association President Damon Kurtz said the wage gap between the Fresno department and its smaller, less busy counterparts is a very real issue for both the rank-and-file officers and the city they protect. He doubts the city will be able to reach its staffing goals, and even if it does, the department will need equipment upgrades to keep those officers from having to use cars with 200,000 miles on them and computers made in 2001.
Kurtz believes both Dyer and Brand have a commitment to public safety, but he believes the city just does not have the revenue to support the number of officers necessary to keep Fresno safe. Perhaps the residents of Fresno need to lean on their officials for a steady revenue source, he added.
The department’s recovery
Dyer is optimistic. He helped his department survive a surge of violent crime in the 1990s and a recession that thinned its ranks in the 2000s. Compared to those issues, the challenge of finding new officers is not a big deal. In fact, the chief had just signed off on five new hires – three recent academy graduates and two officers lured from other departments – as he spoke Thursday.
“It’s all starting to turn around,” Dyer said. “We’re starting to see more applicants from Fresno State and more interest in police academies.”
His department has more to sell its recruits than a paycheck.
The city’s pension plan is 120 percent funded, meaning that if every officer retired today they would be paid for the full length of their pension with another 20 percent of the total fund left over. By comparison, CalPERS, the state’s pension program, is only 73 percent funded, Dyer said.
Fresno police officers often work a greater variety of assignments – street violence, traffic and narcotics, to name a few – in their career than officers in other cities. A large city like Fresno also offers the excitement many young recruits crave coming out of the academy.
But Dyer’s recruitment team has had the most success marketing the department’s odd work schedule, something Dyer referred to as platooning.
Everyone assigned to patrol – those officers get every other weekend off, and it’s a four-day weekend. We’re finding that to younger people, time off is a great value – in some cases more than pay.
Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer
“Everyone assigned to patrol – those officers get every other weekend off, and it’s a four-day weekend,” Dyer said. “We’re finding that to younger people, time off is a great value – in some cases more than pay.”
That’s not to say Dyer’s OK with the grand jury’s assessment of his department’s pay.
The grand jury’s report is a little misleading, he said, because it only talks about starting pay. It’s not uncommon, the chief added, for experienced officers to make around $100,000 per year. Officers with at least two years of experience who transfer to Fresno will start at $72,000 and receive a $10,000 signing bonus.
Dyer said that in addition to the new raises approved Monday, which did not exist when the grand jury made its assessment, all officers already receive raises when they reach specific seniority milestones. When officers reach the intermediate level – four years of experience if they have a bachelor’s degree or five years without a degree – they get a 4 percent raise. That increase doubles if they reach the advanced level – eight years with a degree or 10 years without.
The department has seen a decrease in attrition – officers quitting or retiring for medical reasons – over the last year or so. The loss of officers has severely hindered the department’s rebuilding efforts, Dyer said, because at one point, five or six officers were leaving the department each month. In all, it has hired 264 officers since the beginning of 2014.
But more people are applying to the department, and more of those applicants are choosing Fresno. It’s still a seller’s market. Every law enforcement agency is hiring, and the private sector is booming. Most academy graduates still have their pick of at least a few options. But with 20 recruits currently in the academy and the upcoming pay bumps approved, Dyer believes Fresno will hit 825 officers sometime in the next year.
The union isn’t convinced
The president of the department’s union, however, doesn’t agree.
Kurtz is an officer with 23 years of experience – 13 with Fresno. He noted the department hasn’t reached its hiring goals in each of the last four years. He concedes there are many reasons for this, but he does not want the city or its residents to discount the resource gap.
“We make 19 percent less than the state average for police officers,” Kurtz said. “And it’s hard. Many of our officers are driving cars that have 200,000 miles on them with computers from 2001 in them. You wouldn’t put your family in a car with 200,000 miles in it, but we’re asked to work 10-hour shifts and engage in high-speed chases in them.”
Kurtz said the young officers of today have a lot of choices, and they know it.
“When I was first starting 20 years ago, I just wanted to be a police officer,” he said. “I just wanted to run my sirens and go out on calls. But now, (young officers) know they’re marketable. If you’re a good recruit, you can write your own ticket.”
Fresno, the state’s fifth-largest city, is also a busy place for a police officer, Kurtz said. It rivals cities known for higher crime rates, such as Oakland, in terms of the sheer number of calls for service. The grand jury report notes that in the first quarter of 2016, the department responded to about 97,000 such calls.
The pay is absolutely a reason for attrition. If you can make a better life for your family, you’re going to have that conversation. You may have a soft spot for Fresno PD, but a softer spot for your wallet.
Fresno Police Officers Association President Damon Kurtz
According to Kurtz, the total number of officers employed by the department can be misleading in terms of public safety. It includes about 100 officers paid for by other entities – school districts, for example – who can’t just drop their assignments to assist the department elsewhere. It also includes recent hires, who still have about six months of extra training before they are able to respond to major calls on their own.
The department needs additional officers more than ever, he added, because of state laws that have decriminalized many minor crimes.
“We need high visibility,” Kurtz said. “We need to be out moving through the streets, and there’s no time to be proactive when you’re out running from call to call.”
And Kurtz believes better pay would go a long way toward attracting new officers and securing the ones already working for the department.
“The pay is absolutely a reason for attrition,” he said. “If you can make a better life for your family, you’re going to have that conversation. You may have a soft spot for Fresno PD, but a softer spot for your wallet.”
Although the union approved Monday’s contract agreement, Kurtz noted his members only did so by about a 60-40 margin – low for a FPOA vote, he added. Kurtz would like to have seen all officers receive a 5 percent raise, not just those who’ve reached a senior level. But he understands the money just wasn’t there.
He hopes the city can soon find a reliable source of revenue to increase the police budget – perhaps by even asking taxpayers to pay a little extra.
“Maybe it’s time to think about a bond measure,” Kurtz said. “We’ll pay for a zoo, but will we pay for the police and firefighters needed in our neighborhoods?”