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.[PAGEBREAK]
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."
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.