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Cover Story

Who Wants This Job?

Thousands of positions in law enforcement remain unfilled and agencies nationwide are seeking the answer to one scary question.

May 01, 2002  |  by Shelly Feuer Domash

The Streets of San Francisco

Across the Country in San Francisco, the police department is facing the same challenges of recruiting and retaining officers as its East Coast and Midwest counterparts.

"We are always looking at different methods to ensure that we are where we need to be as far as staffing needs," says Lt. James Leach of the recruitment and retention division. "It requires that we be ahead of things, being proactive rather than reactive."

Two years ago the department chose to be proactive by assigning Leach to be the full-time recruiting officer. "We basically are looking at all aspects of recruiting, ranging from marketing to the automation of testing," he says.

The SFPD has programs in high schools and colleges. It also gets involved in community events and activities in order to "keep a presence in people's minds so that when they start to gravitate toward a career they will say what a fine department San Francisco is." According to Leach, the SFPD offers a variety of incentives to attract recruits. He explains that the perks range from the "soft" benefits such as the diversity of department to "hard" ones such as bilingual pay for people who have language skills and progression incentives for longevity."

The SFPD uses most of the traditional recruitment methods of police agencies, but some of its programs are a little more extraordinary. For example, the chief talks to applicants on the day of their written test and gives them a pep talk. "I've talked to people who have said that it was a nice twist," Leach says.

Despite a starting salary of close to $50,000, Leach says SFPD is still finding it hard to attract recruits. And he agrees with most experts that applicants have changed over the last 15 to 20 years.

"I think people are more selective in what they may or may not want to do," says Leach. "They have more information and have access to more information. People are interested in lifestyles, not careers. When I joined it was under the pretense of a career. I had committed myself to 25 to 30 years. Today it is more of a lifestyle than a career, and it may be for a shorter time. I'm not saying it is good or bad, that is just the way it is."

With a department of over 2,000 sworn, Leach says SFPD is always looking for ways to enhance retention. "With the attitude in the workplace now, we have to be consistently on top of things and be flexible in terms of being competitive," he explains. "We are not doing everything we want to do, but we are being fiscally responsible and at the same time looking at opportunities down the road."

While each department faces its own problems, one thing is clearly evident: Law enforcement agencies nationwide are going to have to find new and increasingly more innovative ways not only to attract recruits, but to retain their officers.

Recruiting By the Slice

When Boca Raton, Fla., residents ask, "Guess who's coming to dinner?" the answer is one the rest of the country would not expect. Armed with a pizza, the police chief just might show up to recruit for Boca's finest.

The impromptu pizza parties are part of a marketing campaign conceived by local resident and advertising executive Stan Cotton.

According to Chief Andrew J. Scott III, his department began to deal with a personnel shortage two years ago. "We had an early retirement window and we lost 35 members over an 18-month period. So we had substantial personnel losses and vacancies."

With a department of only 162 members, staffing issues posed a challenge for Scott.

"We put thousands of dollars toward the standard types of recruitment," he adds. But like most departments across the country, Boca Raton found that the old methods did not work.

And so, pizza in hand, Chief Scott tried a new approach.

The police department placed advertisements in the local newspapers, but instead of just asking for recruits, they offered Chief Scott's company for dinner to discuss the benefits of police work.

The idea behind the dinner was to get the potential recruit's family behind his or her decision to join the department.

"If you can get the family to buy in, you can get a quality recruit, one that puts [his or her] heart and soul into it. You have to talk with the father, mother, sister, girlfriend, wife, and speak to the entire family as to the nature of law enforcement," Scott says. " You talk about respect, that you do not earn it just by being a police officer, but by treating people fairly and by doing something with your life, and by doing that you leave a legacy. We hit a nerve with that."

Another obstacle Scott has had to overcome was the media image of police officers. "We had to reassure families that law enforcement is not necessarily what is depicted on TV or in Hollywood. It's not all the shootings, killings, and violence that happens in a one-hour show."

Scott says the department received over 300 calls and that it was able to screen or divert 90 percent of them. Not only did the department fill all of its vacancies, but also other applicants were diverted to different areas in the department, and to other departments in the area. "Other departments in the area thanked me," he says.

As for Scott, he says he personally went to approximately 10 dinners. He sent his staff to numerous others. He also found that while he answered the questions of family members, he was able to discern within a matter of five to 10 minutes the quality and type of character that a recruit possesses.

With the successful recruitment campaign now behind him, Scott has advice for larger police agencies. "My recommendation is to get our of the rut of standardized recruitment efforts. Using a term that is used a lot, I would say, think out of the box. If it can work for an agency like Boca Raton, there is no reason why it can't work for other agencies. I feel confident if law enforcement executives get out of the routine of thinking of basic ways and become imaginative, we can overcome our vacancies."

Hiring Freeze

The NYPD is not the only Tri-state agency suffering a shortage of police personnel. Out on Long Island in the neighboring suburban county of Nassau, budgetary problems have stopped any hiring of officers because of budget cuts.

Meanwhile, the department is at one of its lowest staffing levels in years. In a private memo, the police commissioner asked for 250 new officers, but his request was denied.

The police staffing concerns were dragged into the spotlight by recent events. In February a melee between two rival motorcycle gangs injured 10 people and more than 70 gang members were arrested. Police union leaders in the County accused local officials of endangering the public by not having enough officers at the scene, a result, they say, of not hiring enough officers and eliminating overtime.

To make matters worse, the police union is now in a highly publicized battle with the new county executive as he demands concessions. Police union president Gary DeLaRaba has warned that if the present administration continues without hiring, both the public and his officers will be at risk.

With a higher pay scale, Nassau County has historically attracted more officers than New York City. The average salary for a six-year veteran is $70,563, while New York City cops average $60,027 after five years. Until the hiring freeze a large percentage of the new recruits for Nassau County were from the New York City force.

Shelly Feuer Domash is a Long Island-based writer who regularly covers the police beat for the New York Times. She is a frequent contributor to POLICE.

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