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US Police Departments Have Trouble Finding Recruits

  • Shirley Skeel

Police departments in many communities across the United States say they are facing a serious manpower shortage… and attracting new recruits is not as easy as it used to be.

On patrol in Oakland, California, a city notorious for its crime rate, veteran officer Reggie Brown monitors a report of another assault on his police scanner. After 18 years, Brown says the job has become routine. When he started, he loved the excitement. "It was everything you could dream of!" he recalls. "I mean you get to drive fast, chase folks, put people in jail. It was like, you know, on a nightly basis there was plenty of action back then."

The promise of such thrills had young people like him lining up for police work 20 or 30 years ago. But, as Miami Police Department spokesman Delrish Moss notes, things have changed. "When I grew up, you wanted to be a police officer, an astronaut or president of the United States. I don't hear those three on the top of the list anymore."

Finding young people who are eager and qualified to train as police officers has gotten tougher in many cities. Of 20 big city and county police departments contacted by this reporter, 17 -- ranging from Los Angeles to Dallas to Washington, D.C. -- said they are having difficulty, or expect to have difficulty, meeting their recruitment targets. They point to several reasons: higher education standards for recruits, aggressive counter-bids from the military and government security agencies … and competition from private business as the economy picks up.

"Most of us are seeing that our pools of applications have dwindled down," says Mary Ann Viverette, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "Where we might have gotten 300 applicants for one position," she explains, "now you may only get 50 to 75."

To make matters worse, police departments are losing a larger percentage of staff than in years past, as veteran officers who are part of the baby boom generation begin to retire.

Despite a recruiting blitz last year, the San Diego Sheriff's office had a net gain of only 15 deputies. They are short 260 officers, and Lieutenant Mike Barletta says the strain is showing. "Our deputies are really experiencing exhaustion. In the past we used to have to fight the deputies off [because so many wanted] to work overtime. We've reached a point where we are now ordering deputies to work overtime."

Other cities are also short-handed. And the rivalry for new recruits is so intense, some are trying to lure experienced officers away from other communities… offering thousands of dollars in signing bonuses or housing benefits. Other measures are more imaginative. Oakland, California has lowered the cyclone fence trainees have to jump from 2 to 1-1/2 meters. The Los Angeles Police Department is holding recruitment seminars in churches and at meetings of minorities and even gay activist groups.

But the young people in the target audience say more than just speeches and handouts may be needed to steer them toward a career in law enforcement.

The Administration of Justice class at Contra Costa College in Northern California prepares students to be probation officers, investigators and cops. Rhonda Roberts hopes to become a prison guard. She says many of her peers wouldn't consider becoming a police officer, mainly because of the negative image the job has these days, thanks to media coverage of cops who've broken the law with unjustified arrests or rough handling of citizens. "I think that children are seeing more corrupt officers on the news," she explains, "and … the police are more on trial. And a lot of people don't want to get into that."

Not that such images hinder everyone. Fellow student Michael Hernandez is taking his own stand. He plans to be a police officer. "I don't like what's become of my community," he says. "It bothers me how, you know, some people are afraid to walk in the streets. If I can make the slightest difference in one person's life that's fine enough for me."

Hernandez graduates this year. He should have no problem getting a job.

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