In Prince George's County, 223 police officers will be eligible for for retirement by the end of 1991. Because of an editing error, an incorrect number appeared in a Metro section article yesterday. (Published 9/8/87)
More than 260 Fairfax County police officers -- a third of the department -- will become eligible for retirement during the next four years, even though the department cannot fill current vacancies and the demand for police assistance is increasing.
The mass retirements, attributed to a hiring surge during the late 1960s, will coincide with retirements in other Washington area police departments and with growing needs in the outer suburbs, making competition for job candidates fierce. Moreover, Fairfax recruiters say their task is compounded by low unemployment rates, an aging population and significant drug use among job applicants.
"We're in a mess," said Nick Krassensky, president of the Fairfax County Police Association, a nonunion organization that represents most of the Police Department. "There are not enough police officers on the street. It's bad now, and it's going to get worse."
The department estimates that two-thirds of the 260 police officers will retire immediately, with the remaining one-third leaving during the eight years after their 20-year service dates. As of last week, there were 46 job openings for police officers, according to county personnel officials.
Though the department is scrambling to fill the vacancies, it will not be able to replace the experience the retiring officers take with them. In the next five years, for example, the entire six-member homicide unit, which includes some of the department's most highly trained officers, will be eligible for retirement.
Alarmed by the impending shortages, the department has launched a innovative campaign to find officers. Capt. Charles L. Jackson, commander of the personnel division, said the county has "drastically" increased its recruiting efforts, including testing applicants twice a month rather than twice a year, combing military bases for potential candidates, and even posting help-wanted signs at 7-Eleven stores in the county.
In addition, for the first time, the county is buying radio spots to advertise police jobs, said Charles C. Hargrove, supervisor of the county's employment division.
Taking the staffing concerns a step further, some in the department say the authorized strength of 859 police officers is not enough for a county with 710,500 residents and 399 square miles.
Though the county has a low crime rate, calls for police service have increased 13 1/2 percent during the past two years.
Because of the additional strains caused by the shortages, police say, it is not unusual for one patrol officer to be responsible for two patrol areas. There are seven police districts in the county, with each district divided into patrol areas that vary in size.
Some cite average response times in the county as an example of potential problems. Last year the average response time for the most urgent calls was 12 minutes, authorities said. Police officials attributed much of the response time, which has risen several minutes in recent years, to an increase in traffic.
Others argue that the police shortage is the primary culprit. "I think traffic has something to do with it," said Krassensky. "However, if you have every area covered by one patrol officer, your response time is going to be better . . . . A lot of things can happen in 12 minutes."
Many of the officers say they are tired, that it is difficult to get time off and that there is more overtime available than anyone wants. Also, they look down the road a few years and see an influx of young, inexperienced police officers upon whom their lives might depend.
Mass retirements brought on by rapid expansion also are occurring in other jurisdictions.
Officials in the D.C. police department did not respond to requests for current statistics, but earlier this year they said that six out of every 10 members of the force are becoming eligible for retirement during a six-year period that began last year. That amounts to 2,351 of the city's 3,880-member police force.
At the same time that the District was expanding its force because of rising crime, some suburban jurisdictions were experiencing tremendous growth and were hiring fast and furiously. "Everybody was scrambling," said Sgt. Harry Geehreng, a spokesman for the Montgomery County Police Department.
But the Montgomery department has a 25-year retirement program, Geehreng said, so it won't be hit with a raft of retirements until five years after the others. As of July 1, 1981, Fairfax changed to a 25-year retirement policy for people hired after that date.
In Prince George's County, Capt. Tony Narr, commander of personnel, said the Police Department has filled every slot. But like in Fairfax and the District, he said, 23 of the 943-member Prince George's police force will be eligible to retire by the end of 1991. "We have to prepare ourselves for the reality . . . ," he said.
Added to the metropolitan mix are outer counties such as Howard, Loudoun and Prince William, which have been increasing their ranks to cope with development and population increases.
"We're all recruiting very actively," said Charlie O'Shields, captain of the Prince William County Police Department. But, he added, "There are so few people out there who meet the standards."
Unlike the late 1960s, when police departments were snatching up those eager for early outs from the military, today they must search long and hard for qualified recruits, officials say.
Lt. Col. Michael W. Young, who oversees personnel and training in the Fairfax Police Department, said low unemployment rates, coupled with a change in demographics as the nation's population ages, have made it extremely difficult to find suitable candidates.
More alarming to some officials is the fact that a majority of those applicants who want to be police officers are found to have used illegal drugs, Young said. Knowing that they will be given a polygraph test, most applicants admit to drug use during the pretest interview, before they can be given a polygraph, he said.
While drug requirements vary by jurisdiction, in Fairfax applicants cannot have used illegal drugs in the past 12 months. If they have been convicted of a felony or a serious misdemeanor, they also are disqualified.
In addition, there are written exams, background checks, agility tests, psychological profiles, physical examinations and more interviews. Because of the intense screening process, many police departments say they hire at most one in 10 job applicants.
Fairfax police Maj. Thomas Bowen said that in addition to targeting states with higher unemployment rates and military bases, the county has "teamed up" with Dallas in its recruiting efforts. Dallas refers applicants who would prefer living in Virginia to living in Texas, and vice versa, Bowen said.
Bowen and Jackson said that instead of sending colleges fliers advertising job opportunities, they are sending people, including police officers who are alumni of those schools.
Young said that the department will continue to expand its pool of applicants and that officials hope that the job market will change. But, he added, "There is no immediate answer."
And while the county Board of Supervisors recently approved higher pay for its police officers, Young and others said there must be more incentives to retain officers.
"The problem is retention, particularly retention of very skilled people," agreed Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. "I've always felt you've got to give more perks to that seasoned veteran who's still doing the job . . . . It's something I think government's got to take a whole new look at."
Retirements aside, Fairfax has a high attrition rate, particularly at the five-year mark. Some are disillusioned to learn that suburban police work has no semblance to what they see on television shows; others are lured away by federal law enforcement agencies or private business. Last week, for example, a police officer in the five-year range left to take a higher-paying job with Domino's Pizza.
Many say the bottom line is money in an affluent county where the starting salary for police officers is less than $22,000 a year. Half of the force lives outside the county because of the high cost of living.
Of the prospect of mass retirements, Horan said that no one in the Fairfax police department has ever had to face such a problem before. "There is no past experience to look at the whole thing," he said. "I know a lot of people are losing a lot of sleep over it."