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.
"That is clearly a concern, and police chiefs are very uneasy about that possibility," said Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation, a law enforcement advocacy group. "The question is, do we keep our radio cars empty or hire people who a few years ago we wouldn't have hired? It is very problematic."
Williams said that some departments are hiring applicants with criminal records. "A few years ago, an arrest record was a deal breaker," he said. "Now departments are asking whether someone is salvageable."
To fill the void, police recruiters are fanning out across the country. When layoffs were announced in the automotive industry in Detroit, recruiters flocked there to try to sign up furloughed assembly-line workers. Police recruiters comb the beaches of Florida, California and Texas during spring break and conduct ad campaigns -- on billboards, in newspapers, on radio and TV -- at a level unprecedented in the history of U.S. policing.
Police officials say the shortage of police officers has hit law enforcement agencies west of the Mississippi particularly hard because they historically have carried smaller staffs. For example, New York City has twice as many people as Los Angeles but nearly four times as many police -- about 37,000, compared with L.A.'s 9,600 -- and last week announced plans to hire 800 more.
In Texas, the need for law enforcement officers is so great that Dallas, Austin and Houston are in the midst of a bidding war to hire veteran officers, with Houston recently upping its bonus to $7,000.
The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, one of the country's more aggressive recruiters, recently drew the line on tattoos, branding and body piercing -- but left some wiggle room. If the body art can be covered by a long-sleeved shirt and pants, then applications are still welcome.
To find new recruits, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department has offered a $500 bounty to county employees who find applicants who become deputies. The sheriff's department, like many agencies, used to frown on transfers from other departments, but now such lateral hires are given a signing bonus of $5,000.
Mike Farrell was lured over to the San Diego County Sheriff's Department from the San Diego city police force in December. The six-year police veteran got $5,000 to sign, better hours, the chance to clock more overtime and the promise of a fatter pension when he retires. The San Diego city government is tottering toward bankruptcy, so law enforcement recruiters from around the country, including Honolulu and Phoenix (which is sweetening its offer with a down payment on a house), have been picking over its force. Of Farrell's original squad of six on the city police force, he said, only two remain.
"When I first started applying, there were 100 applicants as qualified as I was," said Farrell, 33. "Now they are having a hard time finding 25 to 30 people like that."
In past decades, police departments were hampered by budget cuts. But now, even when there is adequate funding, cities can't find enough cops. In 2004, voters in Oakland approved a $9 million tax increase to hire 63 additional officers to increase the ranks of that police department to 802. Today the city is nowhere close to meeting its recruitment goal because there are not enough suitable applicants.
"People are not as equipped or as inclined to be police officers as in the past," said Barbara Raymond, who has researched the police shortage for Rand Corp. "There's more drug use, there's a more sedentary lifestyle. People are more in debt and overweight."
"What you are really talking about is a major national shortage in a variety of sectors -- teachers, firefighters, nurses and police officers," said Williams, the Police Foundation president. "Corporate America can move across the world to find people to work in its factories. But there are some things that you can't outsource." And unlike the nursing industry, which has attracted thousands of overseas applicants to the United States, most, if not all, police departments require candidates to be U.S. citizens.
Policing also has changed, Raymond noted in her report for Rand. The job is far from the adrenaline-packed hook 'em and book 'em, car chase stereotype of the past. As cities around the nation become more culturally diverse and police departments embrace community policing tactics, officers are often pushed to deal with the root causes of crime, becoming more social worker than cop.
The events of Sept. 11, 2001, have put new stresses on police work. In Long Beach, for example, the terrorist attacks prompted the department of 1,000 officers to create its first counterterrorism unit and a special port unit. To do it, Long Beach reduced foot patrols, cut staffing in the narcotics division and switched most officers from two-person to one-person patrol cars.
There are concerns, said Elaine Deck, a researcher at the International Association of Chiefs of Police, that staffing changes and shortages could affect public safety and the well-being of law enforcement officers. The LAPD, for example, is too short-staffed to investigate complaints against its officers, so that many complaints from 2005 may not result in punishment until this year.
"When you have single officers in vehicles, a lack of backup, slower response time, cuts in prevention programs and fewer school resource officers, things obviously could be affected," Deck said. Also, with fewer recruits entering the system and a large number of veterans exiting, officers' street knowledge -- critical to effective law enforcement -- is evaporating. It used to take 10 years to make sergeant. Now in many bigger departments, people are getting promotions after only two.
Staff writers Allison Klein and Del Quentin Wilber in Washington contributed to this report.