Can immigrants help solve the staffing shortages in California policing?
A law change has opened the door for a willing and capable talent pool
This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning and action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.
The article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it – creating, constraining and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession.
- Law enforcement agencies are facing recruitment and retention issues, with many departments being significantly understaffed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and anti-police sentiment.
- Some departments are offering signing bonuses and other incentives to recruit new officers, but these measures are short-term and not sustainable in the long run.
- A change in California law now allows police departments to hire applicants who are legally authorized to work in the United States, even if they have not yet applied for citizenship.
- This change has seen a significant increase in interest from the Hispanic community, with a considerable percentage of new hires in the Los Angeles Police Department being of Hispanic origin.
- Advocates for the law change believe that it will not only help fill much-needed positions but also provide hard-working individuals the opportunity to serve their communities.
By Captain Luis Martinez
A true public servant, a police officer is an individual who places service before self. It can be a thankless job at times but nevertheless rewarding. However, especially since 2020, recruitment and retention issues have intensified for police departments nationwide. The COVID-19 pandemic and anti-police sentiment following the murder of George Floyd have led to countless early retirements and increasing resignations among our nation’s officers. The police are desperate to hire but “say few want the job.” 
Interest in law enforcement positions is at an all-time low, and many departments are short-staffed, some by more than 10%.
The Philadelphia Police Department is down about 440 officers, 7% below the number budgeted.  The San Francisco Police Department has more than 600 unfilled officer positions, almost 30% below budgeted levels. 
How can the police reverse this trend? Is it too late to try? Some departments have instituted novel approaches to encourage applicants, but there is a significant potential labor pool that hasn’t yet been tapped: those who have recently immigrated to America.
An opportunity emerges
In desperate attempts to recruit new talent, some police departments have resorted to offering hiring bonuses to applicants. For example, California’s Alameda PD offered $75,000 to join their ranks.  Others use existing monies to pay for minimum staffing levels. The Torrance, California Police Department is offering double time to its officers who will cover patrol shifts to stave off resignations and departures.  Other departments offer bonuses to cover housing and childcare expenses, while some promise specialized assignments within five years. [4,5]
Bonuses, incentives and extra pay are viable short-term alternatives to minimize the bleeding. However, they are untenable as long-term strategies, as officers continue to leave, and the time it takes to find their replacements remains the same. It typically takes police departments six months to hire a quality candidate, another six months in the academy, and a final six months of field training before a new hire can work as a solo officer. It’s a lengthy process.
Furthermore, although they’re paid extra to cover shifts, the copious number of extra hours worked can be taxing on officers, leading to burnout and hampering physical and mental wellness. Lastly, while offering large signing bonuses and incentives can sound attractive to applicants, it may lead to people applying who aren’t truly vested or committed to the department or community and are simply joining for financial reasons. Nevertheless, what good are the bonuses if they don’t lure candidates to apply?
Applications for police jobs remain extremely low. Paola Garcia-Vargas, a human resources technician in Culver City, California, said on average, the Culver City Police Department receives about 60 applications for testing dates. But half of those applicants don’t show up to the written or physical agility components. Another 30% don’t pass one or the other. Another 20% don’t pass the oral interviews. A paltry 3%-5% of applicants are eventually hired, an average seen across the profession.
The Culver City Police Department has six vacancies, with five more expected by the end of 2023, out of an authorized staffing level of only 109 officers. “Years ago, we used to get 250-300 applicants,” said CCPD Sergeant Chris Caraballo. “We had to use an auditorium to conduct our written test. Now, we are lucky to get 100.” 
CCPD’s experience is not isolated. A 2020 International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) survey of participating agencies found 78% had difficulty in recruiting qualified candidates.  But what if there is a talent pool out there just waiting for an opportunity? What would happen if the number of qualified applicants doubled, even tripled? Interestingly, in California that reality has emerged, and it provides an opportunity for some candidates that didn’t exist until now.
A legal change opens doors
Previously California law required that peace officer candidates must be U.S. citizens or have applied for citizenship. In September 2022, though, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill, Senate Bill (SB) 960, that changed the landscape. Departments can now hire applicants who are legally authorized to work in the United States under federal law, even if they have yet to apply for citizenship.
How this change will impact police recruitment remains to be seen, since it has been only six months since the bill went into effect. However, recent numbers show a tremendous interest in police officer positions from members of the Hispanic community. From 2018–2020, 59% of new LAPD officer hires were Hispanic.  That number dropped during the pandemic but in 2021 skyrocketed to 68%, and in 2022 it rose again to 69%. 
In the 2021 Census, people of Hispanic/Latino origin were Los Angeles County’s largest ethnic/racial group, comprising 49% of the population.  Additionally, more than half of all Californians under 18 are Latino.  A report from the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) found “California’s Latino population has grown more than 11% over the past decade, accounting for nearly 70% … of the state’s population growth between 2010 and 2020.” 
Moreover, statistics show that Latinos have, in fact, diversified the ranks of police departments. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics data, Latinos represented about 12.5% of police forces in 2016, up from 7.8% in 1997, a 60% increase.  Quite simply, Latinos represent a majority of immigrants in California, and they already have significant numbers in policing, so the interest, talent and numbers are out there.
‘We have a lot to offer’
Some police executives are optimistic SB 960 will give hard-working individuals an opportunity to be public servants while allowing organizations to fill much-needed positions.
One of the champions of SB 960, University of California-Davis Police Chief Joe Farrow, is a staunch supporter of giving people a chance to become peace officers.
“People who are in this country with a federal right to work – regardless of how they got here – they can do any job. They can be attorneys, firefighters, join the military, but they can’t be police officers in California,” Farrow said. “Why hold people back? This was the question that deserved some debate.” 
Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote that “Families are always rising and falling in America.”  Immigrant families, like many others, have ups and downs throughout their lives. At times their success can be shaped by outside forces and influences. Today the children of immigrant families are often faced with obstacles outside their control, such as immigrant status. So why should citizenship status affect their ability to gain employment and serve their communities while providing for themselves and their families? Farrow, a former commissioner of the California Highway Patrol, saw this dynamic at UC Davis, saying, “I noticed kids who were really distinguishing themselves in our academy, but they weren’t eligible to be peace officers.” 
Immigrants with a right to work in the United States have plenty to offer this country. Like many others, they have a strong sense of duty, an excellent work ethic and a passion to serve and give back. Take, for instance, the story of Jose Luis Neri, a 36-year-old resident of Ontario, California. His family immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 1999 when he was 12 years old. Upon arrival, he learned English and immersed himself in the American way of life. He stayed out of trouble and graduated from high school. He always felt a sense of pride and aspired to be a police officer, but he didn’t meet the residency requirements to become one. So, he joined his family’s line of work: gardening/landscaping.
Neri put in 50–60-hour workweeks but still held out hope to become a police officer. He later met a woman through his church who was a U.S. citizen, and they married. Now, with his immigration status settled, he aspires to join law enforcement. “It was disheartening a bit, I’ll be honest,” he said. “I wanted to serve and be a cop, but I couldn’t.”  Neri applauds the passage of SB 960 and feels it will open the door for many immigrant kids who want to give back to their communities and country. “We have a lot to offer, especially in cities like Los Angeles where immigrants make up a large part of the city,” he added. “I hope to join a department soon.” 
Culver City police officer Aldair Vargas is another example. He and his family immigrated to the United States from Mexico when he was 2 years old. He received a stay in the country through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). Vargas graduated from high school and attended a local community college, earning his associate degree. He did this while serving as a Police Explorer with the Santa Monica Police Department for four years.
In 2015, at age 18, he became a U.S. resident and joined CCPD as community service officer, a nonsworn position. In 2020 he became a U.S. citizen and was hired as a police officer in 2021. “If SB 960 had passed earlier, I would have become a police officer sooner,” he said. “But I’m happy the law was passed, and it’s going to open doors for kids like me.” 
Both Neri and Vargas faced obstacles, but both exemplify the opportunities we have to increase the numbers of immigrants in police ranks. “We need to bring in people from marginalized groups and allow them to fulfill their dreams,” Farrow said. [12 Doing so not only provides opportunities for those seeking better lives but can also provide significant relief for a profession desperately searching for recruits.
Where are the candidates?
If immigrants are a potential solution to police staffing problems, the next question is, where do we find them? Whether it be places of worship, schools, universities, or the military, immigrants with a right to work in this country are plentiful. It is incumbent on police leaders to craft programs to find these men and women and enlighten them on the rewarding aspects of being a law enforcement officer. Immigrant families are often reluctant to talk to the police for fear of being deported. Finding and mentoring young kids such as Neri is the key. Mentorship, along with strong recruitment efforts, can help provide departments with the applicants they desperately need.
Colleges and universities present another opportunity. Many immigrants seek education in hopes of enhancing their skill sets and job prospects. California State University-Northridge (CSUN) graduate Esmerline Guardado is one. He and his family came to the United States in 2005, fleeing crime- and poverty-ravaged Honduras. He grew up in the San Fernando Valley. In middle school, he and his brother, both of whom dreamed of becoming police officers, completed a police-oriented program for youths. They both attended CSUN, earning their bachelor’s degrees in sociology in 2023.
Prior to the passage of SB 960, neither Guardado nor his brother could apply to be police officers, as they both only had work permits through DACA. In September 2022, Guardado’s friend and fellow CCPD officer Rico Gutierrez called him and told him he would be able to apply. “It’s a blessing, really,” Guardado said. “My brother and I aspire to be officers and give back to the community. This new law change will allow us to achieve our goals.”  Guardado recently applied to become a police officer and is currently in the background portion of the hiring process.
Farrow summed it up best when he said, “This bill reminds us that universities are a place where people learn and effect change. Passage of SB 960 is a great example of people identifying an issue [and] having a public debate resulting in a change in the law that positively affects members of our community.” 
Use these ideas to get started
Recruitment issues in law enforcement can be addressed in a variety of ways. The LAPD, for example, has a program called the Police Orientation and Preparation Program (POPP). This program works in conjunction with the LAPD Academy magnet schools network and is geared for 17–21-year-old students who aspire to be public servants while working on their Associate of Arts degree.  However, the LAPD magnet program is only available in two middle and seven high schools. Expanding the program countywide could potentially increase the talent pool. A similar outreach could be crafted to target immigrant students who may not be familiar with the POPP program. Statistics show 38% of Latinos in Los Angeles County are immigrants,  so a potential pool of those interested in policing should be present.
Those interviewed for this article gave several insights on how best to recruit SB 960-eligible residents. Most prominent among them were:
- Using success stories such as Vargas’s to help push the benefit of becoming a police officer. These officers can be effective ambassadors in recruitment drives.
- Strong mentorship in local high schools and universities to help guide prospective applicants. Sometimes people need help to get from their starting point to their destination. A strong mentor can provide that.
- Developing a robust recruitment strategy, targeting immigrants with a right to work and aspirations of being public servants. Job seminars, recruitment events and community meetings are just a few ways to reach this target audience.
- Working with city and county officials on a recruitment ad campaign that highlights SB 960 and how it can help immigrants begin the testing process to become peace officers.
Implementing these approaches and more can create a new pool of people ready to serve. As immigrants apply, are hired and become part of the next generation of officers, police agencies will be more diverse, represent their local communities more fully and achieve staffing levels to protect their public in ways that can be sustained into the future.
1. Klemko R. (May 2023.) Police agencies are desperate to hire. But they say few want the job. Washington Post.
2. Young R, Sayers DM. (February 2022.) Why police forces are struggling to recruit and keep officers. CNN.
3. Jensen T. (April 2023.) Alameda police department offering $75,000 hiring bonus. NBC Bay Area.
4. Harter C. (January 2023.) Torrance Police Department tackles staffing shortage with new incentives. Daily Breeze.
5. Hart J. (February 3, 2023.) Twitter.
6. Chris Caraballo. Personal correspondence.
7. International Association of Chiefs of Police. The state of recruitment: A crisis for law enforcement.
8. Moore M. (May 30, 2022.) Intradepartmental correspondence. Information on the Department’s Attrition, Retention, and Recruitment. Los Angeles Police Department.
9. Hispanics/Latinos in Los Angeles County By the Numbers. Los Angeles Almanac.
10. 2020 Census Profiles California. NALEO Educational Fund.
11. Gamboa S. (June 2020.) Latino officers are helping diversify police. Can they help reform the ranks? NBC News.
12. Fell A. (October 2022.) State Law Expands Eligibility for Peace Officers. UC Davis.
13. Hawthorne N. (1851.) The House of the Seven Gables. Ticknor and Fields.
14. Jose Luis Neri. Personal correspondence.
15. Aldair Vargas. Personal correspondence.
16. Esmerline Guardado. Personal correspondence.
17. What is POPP? Police Orientation & Preparation Program (POPP). Los Angeles Valley College.
18. The Latino/a Scorecard Report: A Policy Roadmap for Transforming Los Angeles. Alliance for a Better Community. 2021.
About the author
Captain Luis Martinez was born in El Salvador. He and his family immigrated to the United States when he was three years old. Raised in Los Angeles, he graduated from Los Angeles High School before earning his Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice and his Master’s degrees in Public Administration and Law Enforcement Public Safety Leadership, respectively. He joined the Culver City Police Department in 2003 and has worked a variety of assignments in patrol, investigations and administration. He is currently the Patrol Bureau Commander. He is a graduate of the LAPD West Point Leadership Program, Sherman Block Supervisor Leadership Institute, California Police Chiefs Executive Leadership Institute and most recently, the POST Command College Class #70. Over his career, he has earned the Medal of Valor, Career Achievement Award and Supervisor of the Year Award. He is married and the proud father of two daughters.