SAN JOSE -- Colleagues told Jincy Pace that one day she'd become a deputy chief of the San Jose Police Department. Smart, hardworking, respected, the West Point graduate had all the attributes for a high-ranking position.
Pace still has that goal, but it won't happen in San Jose.
After almost 14 years with the department, Thursday was Pace's last day as a San Jose cop. She's trading in her sergeant's badge to become a patrol officer in Hillsboro, Ore. Pace is one of 79 officers who have resigned from the San Jose Police Department since 2011, including 30 this year.
San Jose police Chief Chris Moore said for the first time in the department's history more police officers are resigning -- primarily for jobs with other departments -- than are retiring. Twenty-one officers have retired this year.
Moore and union officials say the reason is twofold. After pension reform and pay cuts, officers can make more money and better benefits elsewhere, even at smaller departments. Others, including veteran officers, are leaving because they say the once-proud force is dispirited, overworked and rife with morale problems. They don't see the same opportunities and proactive policing they once did.
"It's absolutely the hardest decision I've ever made," said Pace, saying she weighed what is best for her family, including wife Beach Pace, former executive director of City Year, and their two young children. "I've never loved an agency, a city
As a result of the exodus, Police Department staffing is substantially lower than what's authorized. There are 1,055 sworn officers instead of 1,109. For the patrol division, the problem is even greater. It is authorized for 548 officers but only has 492 on the rolls, and 32 of the officers are not available for duty due to various reasons. In 2008, the patrol division boasted nearly 600 officers. The fear among officers is the number will continue to drop and put a greater strain on their safety and ability to answer calls for service.
"We're going to be losing a lot of people, and they're not the people you'd want to lose," Pace said. "We have some of the most amazing employees. We can only do so much. We're at the point we're breaking. It breaks my heart."
Pace and the dozens of other departed cops leave a department that is struggling to respond to an uptick in crimes across the board -- a surge some say is the result of criminals knowing there are fewer eyes on the streets. San Jose is on pace to exceed the 15-year high of 39 homicides last year, the 2012 total ballooning by eight in just 11 days in August.
As an internal affairs sergeant, Pace would field background check calls for co-workers who were looking for other jobs. In April she began to wonder why she wasn't looking, too. While Hillsboro doesn't pay as much, Pace's take-home pay will be within a few thousand dollars of what she earns in San Jose. And because the cost of living is much lower, Pace believes her family will enjoy a better quality of life.
If she had stayed and moved up the ladder, she realized that because of the staffing shortage she wouldn't have much time to spend with her family. She also said the staffing levels have created an unsafe environment for officers, and she sees safety in the city on the decline.
"I'm not willing to sacrifice my family for an organization like that, especially one that has come to this point, with very little to say to me," Pace said.
But for many officers, it's an economic decision.
When one San Jose cop moved to the Redwood City Police Department, his take-home pay increased from $2,100 every two weeks or $54,600 a year up to $3,400 every two weeks or $88,400 a year, according to the San Jose police union.
The maximum base pay for a Campbell police officer is $104,836 a year, with a 9 percent retirement contribution. Campbell does not offer retiree health benefits.
By comparison, officers in San Jose now earn a maximum base salary of $97,198 and make an 11.13 percent contribution to their retirement fund and 8.26 percent for retirement health care, according to city statistics.
In San Francisco, the maximum base annual salary is $118,898, plus a 9 percent employee pension contribution and 2 percent for retiree health care.
Recently other San Jose cops have left for jobs with the Livermore and Walnut Creek police departments and the Santa Cruz County and El Dorado County sheriff's offices.
"Our stars will leave. They just will," Police Officers' Association President Jim Unland said.
In response to the staffing shortage, the city is authorizing more overtime for the already weary patrol division, and stripping other nonpatrol divisions to place more officers on the street.
Moore said he has repeatedly told City Hall that to retain good cops, the city must "increase our bottom-line pay."
Mayor Chuck Reed acknowledges that San Jose's salary is not competitive with other agencies' but stands by the decision to ask all city workers, including police officers, to take a 10 percent pay cut in 2011. The alternative, he said, was to deplete the Police Department even more by laying off 156 officers.
"We'll have to make some adjustments once we get the pension problem resolved," Reed said. "We can make adjustments in pay to be competitive."
Reed argues that the city's pension costs have more than tripled in a decade to $245 million and devour funding for city services. A recent audit affirmed that the city's retirement funds remain $3.5 billion short of covering promised benefits and that retirement costs have doubled in two years, "from $136 million to an estimated $244 million." In June, voters overwhelmingly approved Measure B to reduce pensions for new hires and make current employees pay more for their pensions or switch to a reduced plan for their remaining years.
Some cops took the vote personally.
"As officers, what we are hearing from our citizens is you guys are a bunch of greedy guts and we don't appreciate what you've done for us," Pace said. "As officers, we are used to that, to some extent. But it's heartbreaking. It's a vote, right there in front of you."
From Reed's standpoint, the situation at the Police Department is a troubling but necessary one. In the short term, the city doesn't have the money to pay higher salaries. But the mayor said that once the city gets the "pension problem solved," then pay hikes can be considered and more cops can be hired.
Moore said that employee contribution of nearly 20 percent for pension and retiree health care, coupled with the 10 percent pay cut, is driving officers to look elsewhere. Seventy-nine officers have resigned since 2011, compared with 47 from 2007 to 2010.
"They all say the same thing," Moore said. "I love the city. I love this department. But I can't afford to work here."
To get police staffing levels to 1,109, the department in September will begin the first of two academy classes that could put 66 rookie cops on the streets in June, Moore said. A second academy is scheduled in March.
Moore worries about the department's ability to retain these new officers once they complete the training and get experience on the street.
And the new officers won't immediately make up for the loss of experienced officers and sergeants who may have climbed the ranks, Pace said. Unland said the influx of new hires will not keep pace with the rate of retirements and resignations. And because it typically takes at least two years for a new officer to get up to speed, the resulting "brain drain" will be evident.
What it all means is the department isn't the same as when Pace began her career 14 years ago, when it was a "high-performing team."
As an example, she recalls the Wendy's finger-in-chili scam, a 2002 caper in which a couple was arrested for planting a human finger in a bowl of chili at the fast-food restaurant.
"We had the expertise, the manpower, the drive," Pace said. "I question whether we'd make the case today. Not because we don't have the expertise or the intelligence. We totally do. I don't know we'd have the manpower to put into it.
"We'd be telling Wendy's, good luck with that," she said.
Pace is looking forward to planting roots in a new community, but her departure is bittersweet.
"There's so many amazing people that I have worked with, and worked for, and I have put so much of myself into the job that I've done, and it's like watching someone you love slowly wither away and die," Pace said. "It's so sad. But I've got to go before I get drawn down under with it."
Staff writer Robert Salonga contributed to this report. Contact Mark Gomez at 408-920-5869. Follow him on Twitter.com/markmgomez.