Law enforcement agencies throughout the country are facing a major challenge in the recruitment of qualified peace officers. The baby boomer generation-many of them hired after service in Vietnam-is in the midst of retirement planning. Younger people are more skeptical about police work because of negative publicity and the allure of a rebounding economy with job offers from the private sector.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics includes police officers on its listing of jobs dominated by workers over the age of 45. While workers in other industries are considering staying on the job past retirement age, police officers typically wait until their optimal point of pension benefits and go into retirement as soon as they possibly can.
Naber Technical Enterprises, an Auburn, Calif.-based law enforcement consulting firm, has conducted a nationwide study of police agencies' hiring programs. The study found that departments across the country are facing a shortage of peace officers. Naber says that the officer shortage is caused by a decrease in the number of applicants combined with the lengthy and expensive applicant screening process. Normal attrition occurs and it becomes more difficult to fill the need for officers, usually resulting in current officers working more overtime. Most police departments are going through budget cutbacks, meaning that funds are tighter for recruitment and hiring.
Police departments face a lot of competition in getting the word out to qualified candidates-from other departments, from fire departments and homeland security jobs, and from the private sector, which offers better pay and offers a quick hiring process. Police departments have to find candidates with fairly clean backgrounds, appropriate skills, and the desire to work in a stressful job that is coming under increasing public scrutiny. Plus they must be willing to undergo a lengthy and sometimes grueling hiring process.
Sgt. Matt Murray, supervisor of the recruiting unit for the Denver Police Department, is concerned about the "brain drain" that retirement is creating for his agency. Retiring officers take with them years of experience and expertise. This puts more pressure on officers approaching retirement age-some of whom will decide it's not worth staying on much longer.
The Denver PD currently employs about 1,440 sworn officers. According to Murray, 300 retirements are anticipated during the next two years. The agency will sponsor four academy classes this year with the hope that 45 recruits will graduate from each class. In the past, it was normal for Denver to sponsor only one to two academy classes per year. Denver is also actively recruiting lateral transfers to fill some of the gap.
Murray and his team of recruitment officers are trying out non-traditional methods to reach qualified applicants. "We're trying to tap into people who don't usually apply," Murray says.
Setting up at shopping malls is one technique that's produced results. Officers invite interested parties to compete in physical fitness exercises that are used to test candidates in the hiring process. "We offer them a challenge," Murray says. "Can you compete in a physical fitness test with cops?" This also serves to break down their fears about the physical requirements of being a police officer.
The department has produced a recruitment video featuring minority police officers talking about their careers, which plays on electronic kiosks in high-traffic malls and college campuses. Another effective technique has been networking with universities and community colleges to allow Denver PD officers to teach class sessions.
"We're trying to catch people earlier and break down the barriers," Murray says. "We're going through a period of transition in police recruitment. We're looking for different kinds of people these days with diverse backgrounds, a higher education level, and the right kind of mentality. We'll come out better in the long run, but the transition isn't easy."
Murray cites the example of personally recruiting a female social worker with juvenile program experience. The woman at first didn't think she would make a good police officer, but Murray convinced her otherwise.
"We really have to sell candidates on duty, ethics, and service," Murray says. "The military does a good job of selling this image. We have to find the right people. Money can't be their main concern."