Berkeley Police Department’s patrol teams have already moved to a 14-beat map down from 16 due to staffing issues. The department now wants to offer hiring bonuses for new officers and dispatchers and referral bonuses to city employees who help bring in recruits. Image: City of Berkeley

Grappling with an ongoing staffing crisis, Berkeley police are asking the city to offer hiring bonuses of up to $25,000 for police officers and $5,000 for dispatchers, as well as referral bonuses for current city employees who help bring in new police and dispatch hires.

The Berkeley Police Department is short 31 of the 181 officers it is budgeted for, and one-third of its allotment of 36 dispatchers, City Manager Dee Williams Ridley wrote to the City Council Friday, asking that they approve funding for the incentive program. Another 20 officers and four dispatchers are also eligible for retirement, she said.

Williams-Ridley said the low staffing levels have led to mandatory overtime, slower police response times, delays in investigations and reductions to proactive policing and community engagement.

Low recruitment is compounded by attrition, with an average of 13 officers leaving every year since 2006 compared to only nine new officers hired yearly, Williams-Ridley wrote.

The department’s recruitment and retention problems are part of a larger citywide staffing challenge that City Auditor Jenny Wong determined has been slowing down services and burning out workers across city agencies.

Hiring bonuses for police officers under the new program will be $12,000 for entry-level new hires, $15,000 for lateral hires who have graduated from a police academy and $25,000 for lateral hires who are fully fledged peace officers and have completed their probationary periods at another department.

Hiring bonuses for new dispatchers will be $5,000 for both entry-level and lateral hires.

With some exceptions, current city employees who refer new officers or dispatchers to Berkeley would receive referral bonuses. Most referral bonuses would be $5,000, except for current employees who refer lateral officer hires who finished their probationary periods elsewhere. Those referral bonuses would be $7,500.

Whatever their previous experience, the city would pay new officers their bonuses in three installments — part when they’re hired, more when they complete field training and the balance once they’ve finished their probationary period with BPD.

New dispatchers will get half their bonuses when hired and the balance when they finish their probationary terms.

Hiring bonuses for officers and dispatchers would be retroactive to the beginning of 2022, but the referral bonuses will only be honored for references made after — and if — the council approves the funding. Williams-Ridley projected the bonuses would cost $307,500, or enough to hire 10 entry-level officers, three lateral transfers and four dispatchers, all with referrals.

Police department staff developed the incentive proposal in line with what some other California cities have offered, Williams-Ridley wrote. Santa Cruz and Pleasant Hill offer hiring bonuses up to $20,000 for new officers, for example, and San Mateo and Antioch offer up to $30,000.

It is unclear how many public safety jobs, if any, might be obviated when the city’s Specialized Care Unit begins taking over calls for mental health and substance crises that would previously have gone to city police and firefighters. Bonita House, the mental healthcare nonprofit that will operate the unit, predicted it would begin taking calls next week.

It is also unclear when the council might take up the issue. It was not on an early draft agenda for the council’s Sept. 12 meeting.

In the meantime, the police department is hosting an informational seminar at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday for those interested in becoming public safety dispatchers in Berkeley. It will take place at the department’s headquarters at 2100 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

Alex N. Gecan joined Berkeleyside in 2023 as a senior reporter covering public safety. He has covered criminal justice, courts and breaking and local news for The Middletown Press, Stamford Advocate and...