SAN JOSE -- The San Jose Police Department's next academy will have just 29 cadets for the second straight class, imperiling already-conservative hiring plans leaders hoped would offset an exodus of retiring and resigning officers amid a long-running political battle over pay and pension reform.

Historically, police training staff aimed at fielding 60 prospective officers, factoring that at least 10 will wash out during the six-month academy or during post-graduation field training. The current academy class that also entered with 29 now stands at 23 heading toward a November graduation.

The sworn staff at SJPD stands at just over 1,000, down from more than 1,400 six years ago when officers were laid off or started leaving as the city tightened its budget in the throes of recession, followed by the union-opposed Measure B, which Mayor Chuck Reed spearheaded to rein in spiraling pension costs by reducing what proponents deemed unaffordable retirement benefits.

"To say we're in free fall would be an understatement," said Officer James Gonzales, board member of the San Jose Police Officers' Association.


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He noted that so far this year, 54 officers have resigned from the force -- usually for other police jobs -- 30 have retired, 60 are in the process of retiring and more are retirement-eligible in January. Some of the retirements were long anticipated as baby boomer hires reached their eligibility; less forecast was the resignation rate for middle-career officers. For each of the past three years, at least 100 total officers have departed.

That has been modestly offset by the academies, which resumed in fall 2012 after a three-year hiatus. But after that first class graduated 43 officers, the retention rate has been abysmal: only 13 of the 50 officers in the next class -- the first to fall under the reduced benefits -- are still on the force.

Proponents of the pension reform have blamed the police union for scaring off more qualified recruits from signing on to further its political objectives.

"They're working to make things appear as bad as possible in order to bolster their argument that voters should pick their people for City Council and mayor," said Reed, one of four council members who will be termed out this year.

He contends the city has never attracted more than 43 recruits in an academy and that the switch this year from two to three academies called for smaller class sizes. He said Chief Larry Esquivel reported to him that 35 recruits would be the ideal academy size.

"So with three classes, you get more in total over the course of the year but you don't get as many in each class," Reed said. "I'm happy to have 29 officers; I'd like to have more."

The stance is reframing of sorts by Reed, who in April called the 29 recruit count an aberration and said he expected candidate numbers to bounce back to their historical levels. Gonzales calls that view a "smoke screen," arguing that three smaller recruit classes, with current poor retention rates, will likely yield the same number of officers as two larger classes.

Meanwhile, police brass, tasked with trying to cover the city amid all the haranguing, finds itself forcing more and more officers to work overtime, often out of their assignments, to bolster an undermanned patrol force. Police spokesman Officer Albert Morales said the small academy class should also be seen as proof the Police Department is maintaining its standards in the face of dwindling applications.

"We understand and the public understands that we are at a competitive disadvantage. People understand they can go elsewhere and make more money," Morales said. "We'd love to get more, but if 29 is what comes to the surface, we owe it to the city to choose the best possible candidates."

Staff writer Mike Rosenberg contributed to this story. Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.