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Calexico struggling with officer shortage

June 04, 2001|By AARON CLAVERIE, Staff Writer

CALEXICO — The Police Department here is short 12 or 13 officers, according to Sgt. Jim Neujahr.

In the past month and a half, the department "lost" seven officers and is having a hard time replacing them, he said.

The seven positions not filled include those of officers Jose Angel Perry, charged in federal court last week with importation of a controlled substance, and Patrick Kevin Estrada, fired after he married a teen with whom he was accused of having previous sexual relations.

"Yeah, that's two right there," Neujahr said.

The department is budgeted for 45 peace officers but is operating with 32 or 33 on most days.

"It is hard to attract qualified academy recruits to the Calexico area because of the low pay," Neujahr said.

In discussions with various Calexico officers, "low pay" was a constant refrain.

One officer said he gets one-third the salary of his brother-in-law, a police officer in Santa Ana.

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According to the department, the starting salary for peace officers is $2,397 a month and the maximum is $2,913.

This works out to $28,764 per year for a new officer and $34,956 maximum.

That number is augmented by benefits and yearly bonuses for performance but is still too low, according to officers.

"We don't get too many people that do apply here in Calexico and when we do, we have strict rules on who we hire," Neujahr said.

Last week five academy graduates were interviewed and only one will make it to the next stage.

The department would attract more candidates if the city paid more, according to Neujahr.

"The pay is set by the City Council. They tie our hands in trying to compete with other departments. A lot of the times officers will end up going to El Centro because they pay more up there."

According to Jennifer Alvarez, personnel director for the city of El Centro, the starting monthly salary for an El Centro police officer is $2,990 and the maximum pay for an officer is $3,759.

"Every year they get performance pay increases so that everyone is at a different salary," Alvarez said.

Calexico City Councilman Gilbert Grijalva said he was unaware the problems at the department were so serious.

"What we were told was that they needed two or three spots filled," Grijalva said Friday.

"The department shouldn't be understaffed. There should be ways to make sure that everybody is at their proper staffing level," he said.

In the past two and a half years, city employees (including police officers) received a 15-percent cost-of-living salary bump, according to the city's personnel department.Grijalva said discussions concerning pay raises for the police and fire departments are especially touchy because, "It is always difficult to determine exactly how much they are worth. We understand that their jobs are dangerous and are trying to raise their pay levels.

"Once budget time comes around I'd be very receptive to looking at giving the officers and other city employees a raise."

Neujahr said the officer shortage won't affect the department's ability to answer emergency calls.

"We're using overtime to cover calls so there should be no cause for concern in the community," he said Friday.

He added: "We have a minimum staffing standard that allows us to handle calls, but we don't have enough officers to act proactively and stop crimes."

Mayor Pro Tem John Renison thinks the city deserves more than the minimum.

"It's unacceptable. The department can't cover every quadrant of a city of 40,000 to 60,000 when they're running four or five patrol cars," he said.

Renison said he plans to propose retention programs to help keep officers in Calexico.

"What we need to do as a city council is seriously address that," Renison said.

Staff Writer Aaron Claverie can be reached at 337-3419.

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