Modesto can’t recruit enough police officers. The chief has a proposal to fix that

Andy Alfaro/

The Modesto Police Department wants to increase the bonuses it pays officers to join its department as well as offer hiring incentives for the first time for some of its civilian positions as it deals with longstanding recruitment challenges.

The department proposes to increase the hiring incentive for officers from $15,000 to $20,000 and offer hiring incentives of $2,500 for community service officers, animal control officers and police support specialists. The proposal includes increasing the incentives to police officer recruits and trainees from $2,000 to $5,000.

Officers also would receive their bonuses sooner. The $15,000 bonus is paid as $10,000 when an officer is hired and then $5,000 after five years on the job. The proposal calls for officers to receive four $5,000 payments over two years. All employees pay back a prorated portion of their bonus if they don’t stay with the department for five years.

Police Chief Brandon Gillespie said the $20,000 is in line with what other law enforcement agencies pay and allows Modesto to compete for officers.

The City Council’s Finance Committee endorsed this proposal Jan. 23, and Gillespie said he expects the full council will consider it this month.

The proposal includes $5,000 bonuses to officers, recruits and trainees who are military veterans with honorable or general discharges. Community service officers, animal control officers and police support specialists would receive $2,000 bonuses for an honorable or general discharge.

And city employees would receive $3,000 or 40 hours of paid leave for recruiting police officers, trainees and recruits to the city.

Hiring and keeping officers has been a challenge for Modesto for about a decade. The city started offering hiring bonuses of $5,500 in 2014. It increased the amount to $15,000 in 2016.

The department had 25 vacancies among its allocation of 210 sworn officers and 12.5 vacancies among its allocation of 104 civilian employees, according to a Dec. 15 city report.

Applications plummet

The number of officer applicants has steadily declined over the past six years. According to the city, 1,526 people applied in 2017. The numbers stood at 1,166 in 2018, 910 in 2019, 602 in 2020 and 605 in 2021. There were 557 in 2022. The December report states the department processed 2,200 applications in 2015.

The department also saw 21 officers leave in 2022 and 17 in 2021, according to the city. These departures were not retirements or new officers out of the academy who failed to complete their field training.

All of this reflects nationwide trends. Gillespie said fewer people are considering law enforcement careers and that tend has accelerated in the past couple of years because of the nationwide discussions over police reform and heightened scrutiny law enforcement has faced in the aftermath of the May 2020 murder of George Floyd.

Modesto has been part of those discussions and demonstrations with the December 2020 fatal shooting of Trevor Seever by a police officer and the July fatal shooting of Paul Chavez by another officer.

The city launched a police reform effort called Forward Together after Seever’s death. The city is in the process of hiring an independent police auditor and forming a community oversight board.

The pandemic also has had an impact. Gillespie said just like employees in other industries, some police officers are reconsidering their careers and even where they want to live as a result of living through COVID-19.

Modesto has lost some officers to the newly formed Lathrop Police Department and the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department. The department’s pay now is comparable to Modesto’s and the workload is less. The department also has more specialty assignments.

More variety for officers

Gillespie said the hiring incentives are part of an effort to have the department provide more services to the community, such as increased traffic enforcement, while providing more opportunities for officers.

He said departing officers cite the workload and lack of opportunity because of the short staffing. Hiring and keeping more officers will reverse that.

Besides the hiring incentives, the effort to hire and keep officers includes ensuring officers’ compensation is competitive. The Modesto Police Officer Association’s four-year labor agreement ends June 30.

And it includes hiring more civilian employees, which lets officers focus more on their core mission. For instance, Gillespie said the department has five vacancies for community service officers, and he also wants to hire more as part of the city’s 2023-24 budget, which starts July 1.

Gillespie said Measure H — the 1 percent sales tax increase Modesto voters approved in November — lies underneath all of this. “... The city’s has been cutting (its budget) for over a decade,” he said. “For us, it means not being able to grow, going in the wrong direction. I believe that trend is changing. ... And now we just need to deliver on that.”