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The State of American Law Enforcement - The Thinning Blue Line

Law enforcement agencies nationwide are competing for a dwindling population of recruits.

January 01, 2008  |  by - Also by this author

America is running short of cops. There aren't enough to go around. And it won't be long until a shortage becomes a full-fledged crisis.

Maybe it already has become a crisis and we don't know. No definitive national study has been conducted. However, a 10 percent average vacancy rate would be a safe and conservative estimate.

The shortage doesn't play favorites either. Some of the nation's most storied municipal departments are suffering as much as small town and rural agencies. It's also not universal. Some departments are doing just fine, while others have chiefs who are wondering who will turn out the lights when the last officer leaves.

The reasons for this crisis are many.

First and foremost, an entire generation of officers has reached retirement. And agencies are having a hard time finding replacements.

Some agencies pay their cops less than they can make at Wal-Mart. Others have poor working conditions. And still others have found it extremely difficult to find qualified candidates who want to become cops.

There are also factors outside the control of the agency or the community that it serves. Despite a few hiccups because of fuel costs and the plummeting value of the dollar, the American economy is still chugging along creating jobs. Civil service jobs such as law enforcement are less popular when the economy is strong.

It's also unknown exactly what effect the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had on the ranks of law enforcement officers. A significant number of sworn officers are serving in the Sandbox with National Guard and Reserve units. More importantly, stop-loss rules have prevented military personnel who want to become law enforcement officers from leaving the service, even though their enlistments are up.

All of these factors have forced law enforcement agencies to compete for the cream of the applicant pool. They have also resulted in some agencies offering bonuses of as much as $10,000 to woo veteran officers from other departments and even signing bonuses for recruits.

"For police departments to offer a signing bonus for people to become a police officer is unprecedented," says Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).

Money Talks

If you wanted to devastate a once-proud police force, you couldn't think of a better scheme than what a state arbiter did to the New York City Police Department. In 2005, said arbiter froze the NYPD's entry-level salary at $25,100. That's what NYPD cadets make as they train for six months in the academy. Their graduation gift is a starting salary of $32,700 and a top pay of $59,588 for a veteran patrol officer. Adjusted for inflation, this is reportedly the lowest compensation package ever paid to New York's Finest.

There are places in this country where $32,700 is a good living. New York City and the surrounding counties is not one of them. Eugene O'Donnell, an instructor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says that the salaries paid to NYPD patrol officers are so low as to be "obscene."

Last summer 165 of 1,131 NYPD recruits dropped out of the academy. The primary reason for that unhappiness in the program was the pay.

One recruit who left the program told the New York Daily News, "You get those first paychecks and suddenly you realize that protecting your city doesn't pay anything." That recruit left the academy to take a better paying job at a shoe store. That bears repeating: a shoe store.

"We are having this absurd conversation here in New York that the market economy doesn't apply to cops," says O'Donnell, who points out that the city can afford to pay its cops a living wage. "A lot of the tax stuff in this city is stupid. If you are a homeowner in New York City, then your property value has skyrocketed and you should be willing to thank the police for making the crime rate go down."

Dep. Inspector Martin Morales heads the NYPD's recruiting staff, and he admits that the salary makes his job much more difficult. It also doesn't help that the department has refused to lower its standards. In fact, the fitness and education standards have been raised in the last decade. "We have high standards, and we want to keep it that way," Morales says proudly. "We're going to hold our ground and wait 'til the salary changes. Once the salary is better, I think we're back in business."

The NYPD's union, the Police Benevolence Association, is now in salary negotiations. So Morales may get his wish for higher recruit pay.

Toxic Environment

But unfortunately for Morales and all of the other police recruiters nationwide, young people aren't just rejecting police careers because of the pay. They see what cops go through on the job and off the job, and they don't want any part of it. And their disdain for becoming a cop has very little to do with concerns about dodging bullets.

"The quality of life for a lot of cops is not acceptable to young people," says O'Donnell, who has seen interest in law enforcement wane among his students at John Jay. "Every day that passes, cops are under more of a microscope both on the job and in their private lives."

All of the scrutiny that they face from the public and the brass, and the long hours make many cops unhappy with their career choice. And that's not the kind of message that will make smart, clean-cut American kids choose to pin on badges, especially when the economy offers so many other careers.

Cordele, Ga., police chief Dwayne Orrick says that the skills that make a good cop are in high demand in other fields and that gives potential recruits a lot of options. "The skill level that we require of police officers today in conflict resolution and problem solving and both written and oral communication makes them very valuable. People with these skills can get a job doing just about anything," he says.

Even the kids of cops and kids from multi-generational cop families are now seeking careers outside law enforcement. This break with tradition has been especially painful for big East Coast departments that once relied on a steady flow of officers from cop families.

Passing Through

All of the options available to qualified police applicants have led to an unusual phenomenon: Academy recruits who are there on a lark. In past decades, it was extremely rare for somebody to go through all of the hassle of the police hiring process if he or she didn't really want to be a cop. Now applicants can make it all the way to the academy just to check it out.

Since people just checking out their options aren't dedicated to the job, they are likely to jump off the bus at the first hardship. It's not uncommon now for departments to lose recruits on the first day of the academy when they discover that being a cop isn't like it is on TV.

Other recruits who are disillusioned with their law enforcement careers sometimes make it to the street. But they are still looking for a way out.

O'Donnell believes this practice is dangerous to the public because the officers who do it aren't dedicated to service or to a career in law enforcement. "If people are just coming in for a year or two to try it on, then that has potentially very problematic consequences regarding corruption and misconduct. A community needs a stable law enforcement work force that feels invested in the job."

Non-Traditional Applicants

In order to fill their ranks and keep their ranks filled, most municipal, county, and state law enforcement agencies are going to have to change the way they evaluate applicants.

Some already have changed their application requirements to reflect the realities of the 21st century. An increasing number of urban agencies no longer disqualify candidates for past affiliation or association with gang members. Almost all police and sheriff's department have started to accept candidates who have used illegal drugs. And others no longer disqualify candidates who have had run-ins with the law in their youth.

Opening up the ranks to less-than-desirable candidates is a cause for concern among some veteran police executives. "Those agencies that are lowering what I would call reasonable and legitimate standards are going to pay the consequences," says Orrick. And PERF's Wexler worries that agencies will suffer if they skimp on their background investigations. "It only takes one bad hire to pull down an agency," he says.

One way that some agencies have increased their qualified applicant pool is by opening the application process to people well in their 40s. Wexler is one of many experts who thinks this is a good idea. "I think you will find that the more mature someone is the better equipped he or she is to make life-and-death decisions," he says.

Advocates of letting middle-aged men and women apply to serve as cops argue that the job is not as physical as it once was. "About 80 percent of what an officer does is service related. It's problem solving and resolving conflict," Wexler says.

Matthew Scheider, assistant director of the U.S. DOJ Office of Community Oriented Policing Services believes that agencies need to change their marketing to reach the non-traditional recruits. He recommends that they emphasize service over the warrior aspects of law enforcement. "You see a lot of these recruitment videos with SWAT jumping off of buildings, officers chasing bad guys, and all that stuff. That's the traditional way that law enforcement has appealed to people, but any officer knows that those activities are only a small percentage of what they do."

Comments (2)

Displaying 1 - 2 of 2

pcockle @ 1/26/2008 1:04 PM

I read with interest the article "The Thinning Blue Line", I am 39 and actively considering joining my local mucipality as a Polie Officer, been "older" I believe that I have all the attributes that would make me a good officer, I have made mistakes and learnt by them, I have grown up and become a responsible citizen and being "older" I am rationally and can relate to the community, because I have been a big part of the community.

Here's where my problem is, I am not a US Citizen, I am a Permanent Resident Holder and have been for 9 years, I have spoken at length with several police officers in Maricopa, AZ who all think I have what it takes to join them.

Originally from England, I am married to a US Citizen and have 2 children (1 more on the way) and whilst I can become a Corrections officer (no citizenship required), I cannot become a Police Officer!

My local recuriter will not even return my emails or telephone calls, if citizenship was not so expensive, then here is one more officer who wishes to join "The Thinning Blue Line"!

Peter Cockle
Maricopa, Arizona

Steve Rothstein @ 2/3/2008 11:39 PM

Peter, you have a valid point, but there are also some valid reasons for the citizenship requirement.

In Texas, you now have to prove you are a citizen to take any police training that shows tactics, driving, self-defense, firearms, and a few other areas. Many of these requirements were put in after the Sep. 11 attacks. Our concept of "Homeland Security" changed in the aftermath of those attacks. I am not sure this is for the better but I can see some of the reasons why.

For example, as a legal resident, with a long established tie to the US, I might be able to complete a background check on you. But as a non-citizen from a foreign country, in most cases I cannot complete a thorough background check, especially of your formative years.

Also, since laws and the philosophy of them differ between countries, there is a possibility of a conflict between how you were raised and how our laws are applied. This is much more likely if you recently moved to the US, but can happen even if you have been here for years.

I think we may need to start re-eaxmining the citizenship requirement, but it needs to be done on a case by case basis. I am not sure how you could word that in the laws that govern the hiring practice though.

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