As police departments across the country find themselves scrambling to find qualified recruits, many experts have begun asking, "What will it take to bring back the image that made law enforcement a highly desirable career?"
While application requirements for police officers have increased, salaries in many departments have not and, in many cases, those who might have chosen police work have turned to private industry instead. Now, while the Country faces a recession, the problems may become even greater as municipalities find they are forced to trim their police forces and possibly freeze wages.
These factors, combined with a large number of officers nationwide who are reaching or passing their 20-year or 25-year retirement point, may result in a potentially unprecedented crisis in law enforcement.
Departments will not officially admit what many are privately saying-with staffing shortages and a possibility of lowering standards for recruits, civilians nationwide are going to see a slow and gradual change in the quality of law enforcement, one that by all indications will not be for the better.
Relaxing the Requirements
Department spokesmen contend that they have not lowered their standards, and none would officially say that public safety will be compromised. But the shortage of qualified candidates who want to be police officers is growing.
For most of law enforcement's history, becoming a cop was something many people decided on when they were young. Until the last decade, a large percentage of officers came from a family of cops, and many had military backgrounds.
But as departments raised their standards to include college credits, a new breed of officer began to emerge. They saw law enforcement as a secure career that provided more than just street work. Departments welcomed these recruits, but in many cases, the salaries offered to them could not keep them on the job or compete with those of private industry.
Departments that years ago were overwhelmed with applicants are now finding it hard to get recruits, and sometimes even harder to keep them.
The Chicago Police Department went from no college credit requirement to 60 college semester credit hours or 90 quarter hours. "If I were going to school and graduated and got offered $85,000, I would not take $35,000 to be a police officer unless it was my heart's desire or I wanted the stability," says Sgt. Janice Barney, Ambassador Sergeant for recruitment for the Chicago PD.
In an effort to open the field for applicants, Barney says Chicago PD has also recently added a policy that it would waive the educational requirement if a recruit had four years of continuous military service. She feels recruits that come from the military do better on the job and are more likely to stick with it.
In what also appears to be a nationwide trend, Barney says that of the 4,300 people who signed up for the Chicago PD's test in January, only 3,300 actually showed up. Many departments are now researching why there are large gaps between the number of candidates that sign up for tests and the actual number that take them.
Empty Chairs on Test Day
In New York City, 6,645 candidates took the examination in February. "The dropout rate was 49 percent from the 12,990 that signed up to take the test," says Joseph Mancini, a spokesman for the police union.
Police officials in New York are facing more than the usual amount of recruitment and retention problems that plague other departments. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack, it is estimated that officers will receive an average of $50,000 in overtime for the current fiscal year, which ends in June 2002. That will nearly double their salaries, giving them even greater incentive to retire, further depleting a department that is already short on personnel. There have already been a large number of retirements and that number is expected to rise even further.
"It will be a challenge," says Capt. Martin Morales, commanding officer of the department's recruitment section. "We are going to have to look to put the best qualified people in."
But the police union's Mancini says that will not be an easy task. He explains that the department's starting salary of $31,305 is not competitive, nor does it attract the best kinds of recruits.
"We will never get qualified candidates to, number 1, continue the historic crime rate reduction; number two, continue to pursue quality of life enforcement; and number three, have the added task of front line soldiers in the domestic war against terrorism without the needed pay for a professional police force," Mancini says. "If you want qualified, professional police officers you have to pay them what they are worth. Not to pay them is not cost effective in the long run. You will not get businesses or tourism to come back to New York if people do not feel safe against crime and terrorism."
The NYPD has been accused of lowering its standards by not doing proper background checks, asking for the expedition of citizenship applications for potential candidates, and waiving application fees. Critics say the results of this new leniency can be seen in the academy where the dropout rate and disciplinary actions have doubled in the past few years.
"This may have to do with the fact that a candidate can do better as an elevator operator," says Mancini. "These people were not qualified in the first place."
And if the recruits do make it on the job, the money factor remains a problem for the department. Most of the surrounding departments have a higher base pay, and many of the officers are leaving, even if it means starting over again in another department. In February, 72 officers left the New York City police department to become members of the Port Authority police.
"What happens is that other departments offer more money and some of our officers in this department are inclined to take those positions," says Morales.
And, according to Morales, it is more than just the money that is causing the department to be depleted of personnel. "We are victims of our own hiring," he says. "Twenty years ago we hired 3,000 officers; now they are all eligible to retire. We really didn't hire much in the '70s and early '80s. Now, 20 years later, they are all eligible to retire."
In an all out effort to attract more officers, the department has put billboards on subways and buses. It has placed advertisements in movie theaters and major and local newspapers. And it has even set up a Website so an application can be sent online at www.nyc.gov/nypd.
All that still might not be enough. NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly has announced plans to hire a full-time consultant to recruit more candidatures.
Morales would not comment on the consultant, but he did say, "We are not professional advertisers. We are the NYPD; we have any advantage over any police department in the world. But we are not advertisers. We need a creative consultant to come in and give us different ideas on how to let people know about us."
In addition, retention incentives that would change the NYPD's pension and offer new retirement options to its employees are now being weighed. One of these options is a proposal to allow 20-year veterans to put their pension bonuses into investment-only escrow accounts that cannot be accessed until they retire. Another option being considered is allowing officers to put their entire monthly pension benefit into an escrow account while they work past their 20 years. This is known as the deferred retirement option (DROP), and it allows officers to collect both their pensions and their salaries.
Meanwhile, Morales remains optimistic that the best publicity might be the new image his department has obtained in the light of the courage and sacrifice displayed during the World Trade Center attack. "I think we definitely gained a more positive image and more respect after 9-11. Will that affect recruitment? There might be a correlation, but we have to see."
Retiring in Florida
Miami police are facing similar problems to New York City and despite an active recruitment program, Lt. Kathy Garlend says there are presently 180 vacancies that must be filled. And with a force of over 4,000, that number is expected to rise dramatically in the near future.
Florida law enforcement agencies offer a DROP plan that's scheduled to end in 2003. And according to Lt. Bernie Gonzalez, supervisor of the basic training section, 30 percent of the command staff took advantage of the plan and is expected to retire by next year. He believes that the positive aspect to the retirements is that "if you needed to make moves and innovative changes you can do that with this massive exodus by replacing them with individuals who think differently."
But the negative side of the impending retirements might have a much greater impact on the citizens of Miami. "We will have a lot of experience leaving all at one time," Gonzalez admits. And if you are going to lose administrators, they have to be replaced.
While the Miami PD has started to offer command level training sessions to street officers in order to motivate them and to prepare them for advancement, if these officers move upward, a large gap is expected on the streets. With many positions already going unfilled, if the recruitment numbers do not pick up, decisions will have be made in the department as to how many promotions can safely be made. "We will put as many as necessary on the road if it came to the worse case scenario," says Gonzalez.
One of the factors that Gonzalez sees in recruitment is that officers have one year to move into Dade County. "Some just do not want to and that is a problem," he said. And like most other U.S. law enforcement agencies, Miami faces huge pay issues. The starting salary for a Miami police officer is $30,253.