By OLIVER YATES LIBAW
With the number of applicants down more than 90 percent in some cities, police departments may soon be posting more signs that say “Help Wanted” instead of “Most Wanted.”
From the nation’s largest police force in New York City to tiny departments with only five officers, far fewer people are looking to join the force than in years past, and departments of all sizes are being forced to rethink how they fill their ranks.
While public safety departments face some of the same problems other employers do with U.S. unemployment at a 30-year low, police recruiters are additionally stymied by the job’s low pay, tarnished image, increasingly tougher standards for new recruits and limited job flexibility.
“You don’t move up in a police department the way you would in a dot-com,” admits Chicago Police Department recruiter Patrick Camden.
And most importantly, few jobs are more dangerous.
“You can get shot at for $40,000, or be home with your family for $60,000,” says Seattle police recruiter Jim Ritter.
Trouble From Gotham to Mayberry
Police departments in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago are all working harder at recruitment and drawing fewer applicants. But it is also the same story in smaller cities such as Leesburg, Va., where the number of applicants to the police department has dropped 90 percent over the past five years, and Reno, Nev., which reports a decline of 50 percent since 1997.
A decade ago, there were 3,000 applicants for 10 openings with the Seattle police, the department says. Now there are 1,000 applicants for 70 positions — a drop of more than 90 percent.
In Springfield, Miss., only 75 people applied for the police academy this month. But four years ago, they had 300, reports Elaine Deck, a researcher who has been studying the problem for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
In rural towns in the South, the number of people showing up to take the written police exam has often dropped 80 percent, she says.
In Fairfax County, Va., an entrance exam advertisement would draw 4,000 people five years ago. Now, it brings in 300.
Toughest in Small Cities The dearth of new officers is affecting most departments, but in many ways small forces are having the toughest time. Large departments have a greater variety of duties and shifts, which many recruits find more appealing.
In addition to offering patrol work, there may be community policing details, bike officers, school officers and other specialty positions. A small force typically has less diversification and less opportunity for advancement, Deck says.
Small departments also generally pay considerably less than big city forces. According to the IACP, the median starting salary for a new officer is $39,000; in smaller departments it is just $30,000 to $32,000.
“The officers equate pay with respect,” says Gilbert Gallegos, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, a national association of rank-and-file officers. Many are reluctant to accept a lower salary they feel is less prestigious.
Rick Baily, the city recruiter in Reno, Nev., where a new cop earns $34,000 a year, says he emphasizes the lower cost of living and less stressful work to prospective recruits, but he admits it can be difficult to convince them.
NYPD Blue Competes With Big Blue
With the U.S. unemployment rate at only 4 percent, competition is fierce for good workers.
“When you’re having to compete against the IBMs, the Microsofts, the Intels, for all the qualified people, it makes for a real contest,” says the FOP’s Gallegos.
Record-low unemployment has made it harder for most industries to fill vacancies, but police recruiters have extra hurdles to overcome. Candidates must pass demanding physical and psychological tests, and they must have a drug-free history and pass a rigorous background check. Many departments administer polygraph tests.
Despite the labor shortage, recruiters say their departments are unwilling to modify their criteria, though the vast majority of applicants are rejected or drop out.
In fact, many departments have been raising requirements for new recruits in recent years, often requiring two years of college or military service, when a high school diploma would have been sufficient in the past. The Seattle Police Department has doubled the number of hours of academy training for recruits in recent years; the Chicago force has raised the minimum age for new officers to 22 from 21.
Retirement Rate Adds Burden
Adding to the problem is the large number of officers taking early retirement. The Los Angeles Police Department’s last major recruitment drive took place over 20 years ago, and those officers are now eligible for early pensions. The department estimates it loses five police officers a day to retirement, out of its force of 9,400. The IACP reports that in Baltimore, 400 of 500 officers took early retirement — far more than officials had expected.
Scandals and negative publicity affecting departments in recent years has also taken a toll, many recruiters say.
But despite the various obstacles, there are still qualified people who want to be cops. Although it has been forced to recruit much more aggressively, the LAPD has still managed to grow from 6,500 officers in 1992 to 9,400 today.
“There are a lot of people that love the job,” says LAPD recruiter Keith Aulick.
Chicago recruiter Camden says he isn’t worried about filling his ranks. He thinks money has never been the primary reason people want to join the force. Still, he admits that he’s had to adopt a more aggressive recruitment strategy to fill his ranks.
For better or worse, few recruiters expect their jobs to get easier, at least while the economy remains strong.
“The days of waiting for people to walk in the door are gone,” says Gallegos.