Police Finding It Hard to Fill Jobs

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 27, 2006

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Police departments around the country are contending with a shortage of officers and trying to lure new applicants with signing bonuses, eased standards, house down payments and extra vacation time.

From this seaside Southern California city to Washington's suburbs, more than 80 percent of the nation's 17,000 law enforcement agencies, big and small, have vacancies that many can't fill, police officials estimate.

"I was just at a conference of police chiefs," said William Bratton, the chief of police in Los Angeles, which has 720 openings. "It was all everybody was talking about."

Police officials and researchers say a confluence of demographic changes and social trends have precipitated the shortage. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have siphoned off public-service-minded people to the military. Hundreds of law enforcement officers have handed in their badges to take higher-paying positions in the booming homeland security industry.

And each year an increasingly large number of baby-boomer officers, hired in the 1970s, retires. The labor pool in the next generation is smaller, further cutting the number of prospective applicants.

The younger generation is better educated than its predecessor, so a career in policing, where the average starting salary is $32,000, is not as attractive as it was before.

Prince William, Fairfax and Loudoun counties all have recently instituted programs -- signing bonuses, bounties for county employees recommending successful candidates, and pay increases -- designed to keep their police departments intact.

In the District, officials said they have noticed increased competition for applicants but are not facing a shortage. But Prince George's County began a $1 million advertising campaign last summer touting police work as exciting and challenging in the hope of boosting its chronically understaffed ranks. The force is 60 officers short of its authorized complement of 1,420 officers.

Elsewhere, departments have dropped their zero-tolerance policy on drug use and past gang association, eased restrictions on applicants with bad credit ratings, and tweaked physical requirements to make room for more female candidates or smaller male candidates, police officials said. Departments also offer crash courses in reading and remedial English for the written parts of the entrance exam, and provide strength and agility coaches for the physical part -- all of which have raised concerns about how qualified some of the new personnel will be.

"We no longer say if you've smoked marijuana five times, you can't be in the LAPD," said Cmdr. Kenneth Garner, who runs recruitment for the Los Angeles Police Department. "If we did that, I'd be sitting in this office by myself. But we really take a hard look at honesty."

In the past, some recruitment drives have resulted in questionable hiring. In 1989 and 1990, the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, seeking to quell a crime wave, mistakenly hired numerous gang members and people with substantial criminal histories and drug and credit problems. Some were later implicated in questionable police shootings.

Experts said that while they hope the inherently conservative nature of law enforcement agencies will protect against a slew of bad hires, there is a concern that with a smaller pool of applicants, less-qualified people are becoming police officers.

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