In one of its biggest campaigns, the Prince George's County Police Department has embarked on a $1 million media blitz designed to expand the force and improve its image.
The campaign is an outgrowth of County Executive Jack B. Johnson's pledge to hire 200 officers in each of the next six years and reduce the spiraling crime rate.
Last month, the department started running advertisements on television and radio and in newspapers touting police work as exciting, challenging and fulfilling. The ads feature a police helicopter, SWAT team and evidence technician. Sgt. Tammy Sparkman, who said she wanted to inspire children to become Prince George's police officers, is one of the faces of the campaign.
"You can find it all at the Prince George's Police Department," the television ad proclaims. The campaign runs through tomorrow and will pick up again in the fall and winter.
The media campaign comes as the department is facing an increasing number of homicides, rapes, robberies and carjackings. At the same time, the force has been chronically short-staffed. It has 1,375 officers in a county of 850,000 residents, or about 1.6 officers for every 1,000 residents. The national average is 2.6 officers per 1,000 residents in metropolitan counties.
The number of officers doesn't reflect a department's street strength. On any given day, officers are testifying in court or receiving training or are on personal or sick leave or on limited duty.
The force is authorized to have 1,420 officers, though it has been at least a decade since all jobs have been filled. In 1989, when the Prince George's population was about 125,000 less than it is today, Parris N. Glendening, the county executive at the time, pledged to expand the force to 1,400 to better serve the 500-square-mile territory.
Johnson (D) and Police Chief Melvin C. High have repeatedly said that the force needs to be larger to function at its best and reduce violent crime.
"We want to show our community that we are very serious about beefing up our department so we can better protect our citizens," police spokeswoman Barbara Hamm said.
With 33 competing local, state and federal agencies in the Washington region, attracting qualified officers has been a challenge.
One of the biggest competitors is the police department in the District, which has about 270,000 fewer residents but far more officers: 3,800.
"We explain that Washington, D.C., is a beautiful organization. They're our sister agency," said Lt. James Harper, a member of the county's newly beefed up recruiting unit. "However, here you can have the urban and suburban experience."
The money for the recruitment effort is coming from a $23 million budget increase the force received from the county this year. Some of the money is paying for the advertising and some is going to the District-based marketing firm Octane, which the county hired for outreach and image control.
The efforts seem to be gaining traction. Since the media campaign started, the department has received 50 to 100 inquiry calls per day, Harper said.
"We've been talking to people who are hungry," Harper said. "They want to come in and make a difference."
The department recently increased its recruiting section from three officers to seven, including at least one who speaks Spanish. The officers talk to potential recruits at job fairs and colleges as well as answer calls and e-mails from interested people.
"In the past, the department didn't have a strategy in place to build the department as the population of the county grew," Hamm said. "We wanted a comprehensive strategy."
In addition to being understaffed, the department has been dealing with the fallout from two civil-rights investigations by the Justice Department. The first began in April 1999 after dozens of people said they had suffered serious injuries from attacks by police dogs. The second dealt with allegations that officers had used excessive force.
Since 2000, Prince George's has paid nearly $10 million in civil jury awards and settlements to people who alleged mistreatment by county police.
A result of the investigations was an agreement between the police department and the Justice Department in which the county promised to closely monitor officers and restrict the use of the canine unit.
The investigations garnered wide attention and left the department in a defensive stance. Officers said they felt the effects on the streets, sometimes sensing tension from the community.
Harper said he has not fielded questions from potential recruits about the increase in violent crime or the Justice Department investigations. The kinds of things people want to know, he said, are how long it takes to make detective and what it takes to become a narcotics investigator.
"We talk to people who love adrenaline; they like excitement," he said.
Harper also makes sure to warn them of the dangers. At the most recent testing for recruits, he directed the prospective officers to look behind them at a huge banner that read "Our Hero Sgt. Gaughan."
Steven Gaughan, a county police officer, was shot to death in June while chasing a suspect at an apartment complex after a traffic stop near Laurel. Robert M. Billett of Bladensburg was charged with first-degree murder.
"If someone wanted to walk out and say 'this isn't for me,' that was their opportunity," Harper said. "There was a pregnant pause."
But nobody left, he said.
The other main questions are about salary and benefits.
The starting salary is $38,400, compared with $39,305 in Montgomery and $39,770 in Fairfax. But once the new police contract is ratified by the County Council, which is likely to happen next month, the salary will increase to $42,862.
Another perk, Harper said, is that officers can retire after 20 years and receive 60 percent of their salary.
"We're selling the whole package," he said.
Officers must be a U.S. citizen, high school graduate and 21 years old and have a driver's license. Prospects begin the process by taking a written aptitude exam, then a physical agility test. If they pass those, they are subject to a background check and a psychological test. The next step is the academy, which lasts seven months. The target age group is 21 to 35, but there is no maximum age, Harper said.
Percy Alston, head of Police Lodge 89, said the department has made strides in attracting qualified officers.
"We're on the right track in terms of recruiting," he said. "It's good to see media pieces on the radio and TV. We need to expose the good of this department."