The Coral Gables police department is dealing with double-digit vacancies and has ramped up recruitment efforts with hopes of filling many of those spots by the end of the year.
In the meantime, officers are working extra hours that have cost the city more than its entire overtime budget for patrol. To cover the overtime, the city is dipping into the same fund that would pay new hires who could ease the problem.
While the Gables Fraternal Order of Police complains that the overtime is putting additional stress on the officers, the city is set to lose six more officers to mandatory retirement by year’s end.
The problem, some critics say, is that the city’s hiring process is too slow. Others say that some of the city’s requirements are too strict — anyone who has had a speeding ticket in the last three years, for example, would likely not be hired.
City administrators say that if hiring is slow, it’s because they want Coral Gables to have the best of the best in law enforcement. They also argue that a new crime prevention center and neighborhood team policing will help make up the shortfall. The issue came to the forefront during an hours-long discussion at the May 3 commission meeting.
“We are in active recruitment and we’re not compromising any of our conditions in our desire to actively recruit,” city manager Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark said.
The city has 17 open slots for officers and hopes to hire about 11 new people by the end of the year. So far two people have been hired and staff says another nine applicants have conditional offers but it could take as long as a year before they’re actively patrolling the streets. If new hires are not certified officers, such as officers hired from another city’s police force, they must complete police academy training. There are currently 143 funded positions and the budget calls for 192 sworn police officers.
And while plans are in place to bring in new recruits, critics say the qualifications for the job are keeping good applicants away and that the delay in hiring is keeping the department from offsetting future vacancies.
We are in active recruitment and we’re not compromising any of our conditions in our desire to actively recruit.
City Manager Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark
One city policy says applicants can have no more than five moving violations in their lifetime (excluding cases that were dismissed or where the driver was found not guilty) and no violations within three years of their application date.
“I’d submit to you that’s a light standard to have,” said Frank Fernandez, assistant city manager, whose responsibilities include the police and fire departments. “That power that you give a police officer is very important.”
Fernandez said there’s flexibility with that requirement and that the applicant is judged on all of his or her qualifications, but Vice Mayor Frank Quesada and others wondered if the requirement has already been a deterrent for potential applicants, especially because it was listed in recruitment brochures.
“We will never know how many people wouldn’t apply but that seems excessive to me,” Quesada said.
John Baublitz, president of the Gables police union, said he’s spoken to potential applicants who found those qualifications too restrictive. He mentioned a recent recruitment drive at a Veteran’s Affairs center and said potential applicants were discouraged by the requirements.
“I’ve had people argue with me that said ‘I’m a 15, 20 or 30-year veteran and I’ve been stationed a lot of places. I’ve had more than five citations, I have a bachelor’s degree, I’ve served my country and I can’t apply,” Baublitz said at the meeting.
Since the May 3 meeting the city has removed the driving record item from its recruitment brochures and advertising, but city manager Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark said it will still be considered.
Most of the city’s requirements like education level, visual acuity levels and proof of citizenship mirror other police departments in Miami-Dade but the moving violation requirements stand out. Applicants in the Gables also have to be at least 21 years old — older than many cities.
Aventura shares the age requirement, and the Hollywood police department, where Swanson-Rivenbark was previously the city manager and Fernandez was police chief, has both the age minimum and moving violation standards.
“We want the best, but make it possible so we can actually get the best to work for us instead of having these open positions,” said Maria Cruz, a Gables resident.
Swanson-Rivenbark said that the main thing that’s created delays in hiring is incomplete applications — not those specific requirements.
“We’re looking at the holistic application and we recognize that we need to be a lot more proactive in recruiting the high-quality candidates that the residents require,” Swanson-Rivenbark said.
Baublitz said that the speed of hiring is the main issue and is leaving the active duty officers with a heavy workload. The department has about five officers serving in the military and two on disabled leave. Even the two officers who have been hired are still in the academy and not on patrol.
We want the best, but make it possible so we can actually get the best to work for us instead of having these open positions.
Resident Maria Cruz
He said that changes to the city’s mandatory retirement plan could help address the problem. The union’s current collective bargaining agreement with the city terminates at the end of this fiscal year.
“We have to take some steps. We are competing with every other agency in Dade County and South Florida,” Baublitz said at the meeting.
In order to offset the vacancies, the city is bringing in license-plate reader technology and video surveillance at 11 locations across the city.
The city also plans to hire part-time officers to help with traffic enforcement. Hollywood did something similar when Swanson-Rivenbark was city manager, and it drew criticism.
A Broward inspector general’s report criticized Swanson-Rivenbark and other Hollywood staff members over money mismanagement issues tied primarily to the city’s contract with a company that provided temporary employees, the majority of them in the police department.
Commissioners seemed divided on the overtime situation and the necessity of the extra workload.
“I don’t want to get to a point where we don’t have officers that can take a day off during the workweek,” Quesada said at the meeting.
Still they argue that the city’s ability to reduce crime should remain the department’s priority until it can get the best applicants. The city saw a reduction in the number of total burglaries, larcenies and robberies from 2014 to 2015 and the City Beautiful doesn’t have the same level of shootings and other violent incidents that create headlines.
“I think it’s unrealistic to think you’ll have zero vacancies. You’re always going to have vacancies,” Mayor Jim Cason said at the meeting. “I think the important thing is that we have boots on the ground.”