On a recent weekday afternoon, a group of 16 students from the Cal State Long Beach Criminal Justice Student Association gathered to hear from the “best agency” in the southland.
At least that’s how the Santa Ana Police Department billed itself in a recruitment presentation at the university.
“I say that seriously,” Deputy Chief Henry Esparza said of being the best. “Not just because we say it, but I hear it from others.”
Like most agencies, the Santa Ana Police Department is competing for qualified recruits as departments nationwide report staff shortages and difficulties filling positions. Santa Ana has about 365 sworn officers, with the funding to fill 400 sworn personnel.
Esparza said even in the era of “defund the police,” the Santa Ana City Council has supported its police and authorized funding for a full complement of officers. According to Officer Natalie Garcia, one of five Santa Ana police officers in attendance, the department has been staging about 15 recruitment events per month at colleges, gyms, military bases and career fairs.
“I find a lot of people don’t truly understand all the opportunities in law enforcement,” she said. “Everyone’s looking for a job, but we’re competing with a lot of agencies.”
Corporal Jorge Arroyo, Recruitment Coordinator for the Santa Ana Police Department and one of the presenters, said he particularly likes getting out and meeting with potential recruits.
“I enjoy engaging with people,” he said, adding that colleges provide attendees with unique viewpoints.
“I’m an Army veteran, but we also like to recruit people with different backgrounds and perspectives,” he said.
Recent times have not been good for the perception of police. However, Esparza said the nature of policing is changing, and Santa Ana and other California agencies are at the forefront.
“There has never been a more challenging time to be a policeman,” he said. “We have never been more scrutinized.”
And although much of the narrative has been negative, Esparza said agencies like Santa Ana are working to change policies and perceptions.
“In California we do a lot of things better,” he said. “We train at a much higher level. The legislature demands a lot more from us.”
The California Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) require a minimum of 664 hours of training. However, the Sheriff’s Academy’s training extends to approximately 984 hours to fulfill the requirements of Orange County agencies.
Esparza said his officers are being trained on how to use “minimal force,” and meeting and treating everyone with respect.
Officer Joanna Hatziefstratiou described the department as “young” and “dynamic,” with opportunities to rapidly advance and move into myriad specialties. These include detective work in investigations ranging from child abuse to homicide, to vice and gangs. Other specialized units include the Major Enforcement Team and K-9 teams.
Most of the students at the presentation were exploring different avenues in criminal justice, such as law, but still found the session worthwhile and took time to talk with officers individually after the presentation.
A number of the officers said they hadn’t considered law enforcement careers when they were younger. Several, such as Arroyo and Jared Picard, were in the military. Esparza is a CSULB alumnus who majored in business, and Hatziefstratiou said she tended bar before her career change.
The recruitment pitch included a PowerPoint presentation that walked students through the hiring process, from application through the six-month Orange County Sheriff’s Regional Training Academy. Although the process can be lengthy, once a candidate is hired as a recruit, the department pays for the academy as well as paying a salary.
In the academy and through field training, recruits can earn between about $75,000 and $91,000, while an officer’s starting pay is between $94,000 and $115,000, depending on education, up to 20 percent difference for a college degree and bilingual skills. Additional benefits are given for night shifts and weekend work. Most beginning patrol officers work three 12 ½-hour shifts per week.
“We’re always hiring,” Esparza said.
Arroyo said he and his staff are available to work with applicants throughout the process. Officers said other opportunities are available for nonsworn personnel, such as dispatchers, who start earning between $74,000 and $90,000, which includes bonuses for education and language skills.
Santa Ana also has its own jail, staffed by Santa Ana personnel. Correction officers earn between $72,000 and $87,000 to start.
Student Murad El-Massri is looking to become a police officer and was interested in what he heard. The senior, who is already a certified instructor in firearms and other weapons, said he has long been interested in law enforcement. As a firearms instructor, he said he came into frequent contact with others in law enforcement.
“Even from a young age, the people I knew, they loved their jobs and felt fulfilled,” he said.
Although not well-acquainted with Orange County, he said the size of the Santa Ana Police Department appealed to him and he was going to inquire about an internship.
Although Esparza said he hoped for a larger crowd, he appreciated the opportunity to change opinions about policing.
“So much you hear about is bad,” he said. “But it’s a very rewarding career. There’s a great side of police work.”