Tacoma police must hire 4 officers

Agency has to maintain minimum staffing level despite budget issues

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The City of Tacoma's long-reaching budget crisis is forcing unexpected action in the police department: hiring.

Despite the earlier buzz about possible layoffs and necessary cuts, the department is looking to immediately hire four patrol officers.

"We're trying to hire these people so we can be at minimum staffing," spokeswoman Loretta Cool said last week. "What the department is trying to do is not impact services in the community, which is why patrol has to have minimum staffing."

The City Council has budgeted for 339 sworn positions in the department. But with 20 employees departing in recent months, that number has dropped to 335 and left a shortage in patrol that is affecting other divisions.

It all started earlier this year when the city began talking about possibly laying off police officers as part of the effort to balance its budget.

City officials settled on a $397 million spending plan for 2013-14. It closed a $63 million gap projected for the next two years and dealt with an added $16 million shortfall in the streets fund. The Police Department's budget was cut by $7 million.

Three relatively new officers took jobs elsewhere for fear of being let go, hiring officer Manuela Loth said.

In an effort to save jobs, the Human Resources Department sent a notice to city employees, offering a buyout incentive of $1,000 per year of service to eligible employees interested in retiring. The response within the Police Department was overwhelming. By year's end, 17 sworn officers will have retired.

That move might have saved jobs of officers with less seniority, but it also created a hole in the patrol division, and dropped the force's staffing below the minimum requirement of 339 sworn officers.

"It's such a catch-22," Loth said. "First it was looming layoffs, and now we're hiring four positions."

The hires must be lateral moves, and candidates must have been full-time sworn officers for at least a year. Base salary is $53,081.60 to $73,361.60, according to the department's job description.

Even if the positions were hired today, Loth said, the new officers couldn't be on the streets before the end of February because of the hiring process. They must fill out a lengthy personal history questionnaire, interview with an oral board, pass a background check, take a psychiatric exam and undergo a polygraph.

All of that takes time, which police officials said is crucial now with a diminished force.

Though there are open positions in patrol, the vacancies are affecting sworn officers in other areas of the department.

To handle the earlier staffing demands, half of the traffic section was dissolved and nine motor officers were transferred.