Decked out in his new uniform blues, David Gamero represents one important victory for the Los Angeles Police Department. He's a successful LAPD recruit.

Gamero, 34, was recently persuaded to leave the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to join the LAPD, and he was part of a graduating class of 39 officers last month.

The officer was drawn by a $4,000 bump in salary and the opportunity to trade working in the county jails for driving a patrol car with a partner through the streets of South Los Angeles.

"That's why 99% of people join the police, to get out on the street," he said.

As Los Angeles tries to add 1,000 officers in five years to the smallest big-city police department in the nation, it has found there haven't been enough David Gameros to go around.

The LAPD and police departments around the country are engaged in an intense competition over an increasingly limited pool of suitable people interested in becoming cops.

In Los Angeles, the department is fortifying its recruitment efforts in its drive to beat out other departments and attract the elusive recruit. The department has increased its full-time recruitment team from two to 12. It is offering a $1,000 cash reward to any employee who brings in a successful recruit. And recruiters are hitting the college job-placement circuits.

"We are going to make this happen," said William Scott DeYoung, chief of police recruiting for the personnel department. "There is a lot of cachet not only to the LAPD, but also the city."

Several factors have combined to leave police departments hard-pressed to fill their ranks. They include mass retirements by the baby boomer generation, a strong economy providing better-paying jobs in the private sector and a military that is bulked up and repeatedly extending the service commitments of soldiers who might otherwise become police officers, according to Jason Abend, executive director of the National Law Enforcement Recruiters Assn.

Everybody's feeling the pinch: New York City is struggling to hire 3,300 officers this year, Abend said. Chicago, which used to have a waiting list of applicants, now must scramble to keep recruits in the pipeline.

And, in California, law enforcement agencies are facing a collective 8,500 vacancies, according to Bob Stesak of the state Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training. Five years ago, the 39 police academies in the state were turning out 4,500 new officers annually; this year they are expected to graduate fewer than 3,000.

"It's incredibly competitive," said Margaret Whelan, personnel director for the city of Los Angeles. "Everybody is hiring. Everybody is drawing from the same pool."

With fewer candidates available for a greater number of police jobs, law enforcement agencies throughout the country are having to take unusual steps -- from offering fat signing bonuses to airing seductive TV commercials in other cities -- to gain a competitive edge and keep their ranks staffed.

Los Angeles -- where the City Council is considering expanding the bounty offer of $1,000 to include any nonprofit agency that brings in a recruit -- faces some special hurdles. These include high housing costs and lingering fallout from controversies such as the Rampart Division police corruption scandal. Also, the city has found it particularly difficult to attract African American recruits because of long-standing views among some minorities, particularly blacks, that the department is hostile to them.

Recruits from people leaving the military -- who once made up 30% of the LAPD's new hires -- have dwindled to 10% or less. And the department still struggles to keep its officers from jumping to other agencies. Although the LAPD has lured 13 from other departments this year, it has lost 18 to law enforcement organizations offering better pay, newer equipment and less stressful working conditions, LAPD officials said.

Years of tight budgets have left Los Angeles as the most under-policed big city in the nation. The LAPD fields one officer for every 411 residents, compared with New York City, which has one officer per 207 residents, and Chicago, with one officer for every 210 residents.

The Los Angeles Police Department fell 323 officers short of its expansion plans for the fiscal year that ended Friday. The police force was supposed to grow during the last year by 370 officers, to a total of 9,611.

The LAPD has 315 recruits in the Police Academy who will be graduating during the next seven months. At that rate, and taking attrition into account, the LAPD could fall more than 100 short of the 650 new officers budgeted, although recruiters are intent on preventing that.

Those who do make it into the Police Academy are in for a seven-month regimen that is physically and mentally grueling. They face college-level classes and an intense physical fitness program, driving lessons and weapons drills that test their stamina and precision performance under pressure.

"It's very challenging, physically, mentally, academically," said Officer Leticia Ruiz, who graduated in March. "It pushed us to do our best."

Recruits have to run, climb over walls and perform pull-ups, push-ups and sit-ups. Plus, they have to do it all quickly -- a prelude to the kind of rigors they will face on the streets. Some recruits drop out under the pressure, while others suffer injuries that put their training on hold while they recover, said recruitment chief DeYoung.

The class that finished in April started with 47 recruits, but only 34 graduated, DeYoung said. "Some people discover they are just not ready for that kind of physical regimen. Others realize 'Oh, I might not want to shoot people,' " he said.

Ruiz has wanted to be a police officer since high school, drawn by the excitement and the chance to help people. "It's not repetitive," she said. "Every day is different."

She thought a big-city department would offer her plenty of opportunities for advancement and special assignments.

"I don't like small departments. You are limited in what you can do," she said. The Sheriff's Department was not attractive because of the years of jail work required of new deputies, she said.

Aiming to keep the academy operating at full strength, LAPD recruiters are bolstering their own ranks and intend to keep in close contact with 60 area colleges to cultivate new officers. The advertising budget for police recruitment has been increased from $1.5 million to $3.5 million.

But other agencies have boosted their efforts too.

The Sheriff's Department, which hopes to hire 1,000 new deputies this year, has increased its starting pay by 13.5%, according to Sgt. Val Rosario.

The private firm PolicePay.Net lists the LAPD as the 22nd-best law enforcement agency among the 200 largest in the nation in terms of salary and benefits -- although 17 other California police agencies provide better compensation packages.

The LAPD and other agencies, including the San Diego Police Department and Ventura County Sheriff's Department, pay employees bonuses to bring in new recruits. The San Diego Sheriff's Department, which wants to hire 300 deputies this year, has even upped the ante, offering bonuses up to $5,000 to police officers who transfer to the department.

To expand the pool of potential officers, the LAPD has taken several steps over the years, including raising the maximum age for recruits and forgiving some drug use if it was a one-time incident far in the past. Nonetheless, only 11% of the people who apply to become Los Angeles police officers make it through the tough battery of tests and background checks.

That means the department has to recruit nearly 6,000 applicants for screening to net 650 new officers. Yet the number of people taking the tests has plummeted from 12,714 in 2000 to 5,545 last year.

Police Chief William J. Bratton believes the expanded budget and staffing for police recruiting will turn things around.

"There is, reflecting the mayor's prioritization of hiring a thousand more officers, a lot more attention and resources being put into it," Bratton said.

But the competition for recruits is a nationwide phenomenon. New York City, Honolulu, Phoenix and other cities have sent police recruiters to Southern California within the last year.

Phoenix, which wants to hire 372 officers this year, preceded its recruiters with a cable TV spot in Los Angeles. Recruiters also handed out fliers contrasting their city's home prices with those in Los Angeles County. The Phoenix recruitment foray, which included visits to Cal State L.A. and Cal State Long Beach, drew more than 300 applicants, several of whom were hired, according to that city's Police Department.

The LAPD and the county Sheriff's Department are also trying their luck in other cities.

Teams of recruiters from both agencies will head to Chicago on July 15 for the national Gay Games, which both agencies are co-sponsoring, to scout for potential officers.

Pat Camden, a deputy director for the Chicago Police Department, said he is not worried that his L.A. counterparts will make much of a dent in the pool of candidates available to protect and serve the Second City: He doesn't anticipate many people from Illinois being willing to pay twice or three times as much for a house in Southern California.

"The only problem is," Camden said, "you have to live out there."