Half of the seasoned deputies in Santa Clara County's West Valley Patrol Division that serves Los Altos Hills have retired in the past few years, putting the department in what Capt. John Hirokawa called a transitional period.
"It's the street level right now that I'm most concerned about," said Hirokawa, who heads the division. Lightly seasoned officers are taking over the beats in an area of 1,700 square miles, home of the fourth-largest county population in the state, he said.
The department lost another group of veterans in January in a department that has hired 300 new deputies since 1998.
Deputies are reaching 50, the age at which they can retire with partial benefits. They receive full benefits at age 53, so most retire by age 54, Hirokawa said. Forty to 50 deputies retired in 2000 and 2001, and about 30 retired in 2002 and 2003, he said. He does not expect a large number of retirements in the next two to four years, but in five or six years, the deputies hired in the early 1980s will be retiring.
The captain said a hiring frenzy in the early- to mid-1970s was followed by a 10-year hiring freeze that began in 1988. "We lost a lot of women during the hiring freeze," he added. The division's female officers and other minorities left for other agencies that offered higher pay and better career advancement, he explained.
When the Sheriff's Office began hiring again, during the Bay Area's tech boom, it found it difficult to compete for recruits. Still, it managed to hire 250 to 300 people in 1998. These deputies of about six years' experience make up almost half the force.
The Sheriff's Office looks for diversity, bilingualism, and bright, skilled people who want to go into public service, Hirokawa said. The minimum education is an associate's degree, and computer skills are a plus, because "the future is Internet crime. The unknown X factor is common sense."
In addition to the changes at the division level, the command staff in the Sheriff's Office "has completely changed," Hirokawa said. Since Sheriff Laurie Smith took office in 1999, there has been a "complete turnaround, even among captains," which he believes is attributable to retirement.
Most of the deputies patrol the unincorporated area of Santa Clara County, including park areas.
Eight sergeants and 69 deputies, including those assigned to Los Altos Hills, report to the Saratoga substation. Los Altos Hills has a report-writing room in Heritage House.