Police Forces, Their Ranks Thin, Offer Bonuses, Bounties and More


By TIMOTHY EGAN

SEATTLE, Dec. 26 - Among the depleted ranks of police departments throughout the country, it has come to this: desperate want ads offering signing bonuses to new recruits, and cops paying other cops to find new cops.

Police recruits going through training in crowd control tactics Tuesday at the San Diego Police Academy. San Diego County is one of several municipalities offering incentives to lure new officers.
It seems nobody wants to be a police officer anymore, officials say. As a result, departments are taking a page from recruiters in sports and the corporate world. Here in King County, the most populous in the Pacific Northwest, the Sheriff's Office is trying a kind of bounty hunting: any deputy who can bring in someone who eventually becomes an officer will get a bonus of 40 hours of extra vacation time, worth up to $1,300.

"This job used to be more enticing, and we didn't have to do a lot of marketing," said Sheriff's Deputy Jessica Cline, the chief recruiter for the King County force. "Over time, it's become less attractive. We needed to do something."

But it is a competitive world out there among police recruiters. San Diego County, for instance, has already gone King County one better. "Put a star in your future - now offering a signing bonus of up to $5,000," goes the Web advertisement for the San Diego County Sheriff's Department.

In a generation's time, the job of an American police officer, previously among the most sought-after by people with little college background, has become one that in many communities now goes begging. Experts find that the life has little appeal among young people, and those who might be attracted to it are frequently lured instead by aggressive counteroffers from the military. The problem is compounded by better pay at entry-level jobs in the private sector, where employment opportunities have recently brightened.

The resulting shortage of new officers, says Elaine Deck, who tracks recruitment matters for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, is the top concern among issues facing law enforcement across the country. Nearly every police department at a recent statewide meeting in California reported being at least 10 percent short of the officers it needed. The Los Angeles Police Department has about 700 officers fewer than its full complement of 10,000, says Cmdr. Kenny Garner, who oversees recruiting there.

"When I started out in the 1970's, there were lines around the block of people waiting to take the police test, and I had to sleep overnight in an elementary school to get my place," Commander Garner said. "It's not an easy sell anymore."

Similarly, the test to join King County's ranks now draws only a small fraction of the 3,000 who used to take it.

In the face of developments like those, police agencies have tried a variety of enticements.

"Walk-ins accepted for immediate testing!" says an advertisement from the Los Angeles police force, which at one point sent recruiters to Florida to troll for prospective officers among college students lying on the beach during spring break.

There, Fort Lauderdale's come-on for police academy prospects says "no maximum age," along with "up to five weeks' vacation."

The New York Police Department recently placed advertisements in newspapers in and around Buffalo, part of a broad sweep to find recruits in the economically depressed upstate region.

Many cities have raised salaries well above the rate of inflation and are offering benefits like discount mortgages. Lexington, Ky., will give new officers up to $7,400 for a down payment on a home.

The Los Angeles police are offering $500 to any city employee who can bring in a police recruit who makes it through the academy, and another $500 if the prospect becomes a sworn officer. But the bonus, along with recruit inducements that include a retirement payment of $250,000 after 20 years in addition to a pension, has yet to turn the tide.

"We're trying to cook up some other things so we can get back in the game," Commander Garner said, in a bow to the competition.

The pay in most departments remains competitive with that in other jobs that do not necessarily require a college degree. A rookie officer in Los Angeles will start at $51,000 a year - certainly better than the starting salary for many teachers, of whom a degree is demanded. Police jobs also typically come with comfortable vacation, health care and retirement packages.

Further, most height and weight restrictions have been thrown out at major police departments, after lawsuits challenging them on grounds of gender and race. As for strength and stamina, a recruit in King County need be able to do only 30 situps in a minute and run a mile and a half in less than 14 minutes 31 seconds. "You don't have to be Superman," said Sheriff's Deputy Kurt Lange, a 14-year veteran of King County, where the vacation bonus has led deputies to start recruiting on their own, looking for friends, relatives or just casual acquaintances who might want to wear a badge.

But whatever the attractions to the job, a powerful constraint is working against them, experts say.

"The people we are now trying to recruit look at life and jobs in a very different way than baby boomers do," said Ms. Deck, of the police chiefs association. "People used to live to work. This younger generation works to live. Working late, working weekends, that's not attractive. They want to make money and retire early."

Then there is the competition from the armed services. At some military bases, commanders will not even allow police recruiters on the grounds, for fear that they will steal troops who might otherwise re-enlist, said Lt. Mike Barletta of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department.

King County has been sending recruiters to distant cities, where they scour job fairs, employment offices and even other police departments to find new people to wear the sheriff's uniform.

"We went to Houston, made a presentation after their roll call, spent eight days in the city, and at the end of it all we got was only one new officer out of it - and he didn't last," said Detective Robert Burrows, who does recruitment screening at the King County Sheriff's Office.

What proved to be a bidding war of sorts between King County and San Diego County broke out this year when the sheriff's office here bought radio advertisements and sent recruiters south. The selling point was that houses are cheaper in the Pacific Northwest than in Southern California.

"We sell the lifestyle, and the cost of living, less crime, the mountains," said Deputy Cline, the chief recruiter for King County. "And in turn, we're looking for diversity, for someone with good people skills, someone who can go from a missing-child call to a bar fight."

San Diego countered by describing the Seattle area as a damp, cold outpost far from the beaches of Southern California.

"We say, 'Would you rather live in Washington State, where it's gloomy and gray, or live here with the sunshine and beaches?' " Lieutenant Barletta said. "Our biggest obstacle is housing prices. Young people can't afford to buy a home here."

To help with housing costs, San Diego started a Cop Next Door program, arranging with certain lenders to offer discount home loans to officers willing to live in less desirable neighborhoods. But the program has yet to show much promise, Lieutenant Barletta said.

"We've got all the sunshine anyone could want," he said, "but not enough officers. It's been bad for some time, but it's getting worse."