The "CSI-factor," combined with a challenging job market, accounts for larger class sizes than ever, says Kasey Tucker-Gail Ph.D., a criminal justice instructor at the University of Toledo. Her goal is to develop a major push to attract more agencies, in Ohio and across the states, for the purpose of helping her students find jobs.
The University of Toledo has more than 500 majors between the undergrad and graduate program. As hiring slows, Tucker-Gail tells students they must be willing to move around — sometimes going out of state — to find success.
In Ohio and southern Michigan in particular, there are not enough jobs for the number of students in the law enforcement program. Because prospects are a bit better in the Southwest, Tucker-Gail has formed partnerships with agencies like the Phoenix Police Department.
"They come up and we open it up to all the universities; they [administer] their tests and give out background packets to individuals who are successful," says Tucker-Gail. She explains, "We're asking students to look in Ohio, but we also need our students to have jobs. I'm not doing my job if I'm only getting [them] hired in Ohio, and I'm not doing my job if I'm only getting them hired in Arizona."
Recruiting can be trying on both sides of the fence. When only 10 percent of prospective officers are hired on, it pays to start off with a large, diverse applicant pool. Small agencies in particular need to "think big," especially in light of shrinking funds.
Going the distance
Phoenix PD is one of the top five highest-paid agencies in its state, and competition for employment remains fierce. Still, Sgt. Forrest Vincent, in charge of recruiting, says the agency's not hiring like it used to since the nation's budget crisis has put the brakes on regular testing. As many agencies struggle to pay their way through the process, they're still wrestling with a myriad of old challenges, such as first finding certified individuals with the right skills.
Vincent reports he has had great success recruiting from the University of Toledo.
"We don't ignore our own backyard by any means, but we also know that we want to get qualified people," says Vincent, who reports that approximately 30 percent of hires are out-of-state recruits. He says Phoenix PD chooses these other states based on their aggressive criminal justice programs, or the hiring climate in that state, so as not to steal jobs from other agencies.
Military is also a likely venue for potential hires, as many vets "are used to serving their country and want to continue that service," says Vincent. "It's a lot of the same values that we hold dear — dedication to duty, mission accomplishment, loyalty and camaraderie."
But it's not enough for recruits to show up and show interest; they must measure up to P.O.S.T. standards and demonstrate that they will be good officers.
Background checks can get patchy. "Folks who are applying who've never been police officers have issues in their background, whether it be from drug use to driver's license issues, that make them not so desirable for us," says Chief Wayne Torpy of the Los Alamos (New Mexico) Police. Torpy says the number of new officer candidates is staying about the same, and maybe even increasing, at the modest-sized department. Yet he contends it's becoming harder to find post-academy, certified officers, and says the problem's more prevalent today compared to 10 years ago.
For example, he has seen the window of past drug use shift from what was previously acceptable: They used to look to the past three to five years if an applicant had been using drugs within that time. Now, he says, sometimes they interview candidates whose drug use has occurred within the last year or six months. "It's not so much that they did it; it's how recently they did it that has become a problem," he adds.
Physical screening standards seem to be on the slide as well. Torpy notes that more often applicants "can't meet the requirements to get into the [police] academy." Specifically, some applicants can't run the 1.5 miles within the prescribed time or meet similar cardio or strength requirements. "We'll hire them if they're close," Torpy says. "And we work with them to get them into the academy. But they've got to be within a certain range so that we feel comfortable that they can meet the test requirements."
While Los Alamos used to do fitness testing pass/fail, about two years ago they changed this philosophy to one of "close enough," allowing them to pick up a few candidates that would have previously been washed out.
It doesn't help that some academies, which incorporate physical fitness into training, are drying up. NYPD is rumored to cancel their 2010 academy classes if the budget does not improve, according to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. Most law enforcement agencies run academies and provide certification, but many small departments still do not. When the big departments like New York are considering cuts, it makes academies that are in good working order more valuable than ever.
Vincent says that after receiving a background packet, some people don't even turn it in, realizing that they've done "A, B, C and 1, 2, 3" and are not even qualified. In 2009, Phoenix PD gave a written test to approximately 4,000 people, and hired around 400.
Gauging emotional intelligence
An officer's mental well-being is of additional concern. Stories like those of Forest County, Wisconsin, Sheriff's Deputy Tyler Peterson, who killed six people in a barrage of rifle fire before turning it on himself, left many wondering if more screening shouldn't be done to monitor mental health. One can debate all day if tragedies like these are preventable or erratic — or perhaps both. Should such testing be a mandatory expense everywhere?
Although most states require psychological testing for prospective officers, Wisconsin belongs to the minority of states who do not. But Wisconsin State Representative Ann Hraycheck hopes to change that. Hraycheck, a former Polk County, Wisconsin, sheriff, recently petitioned for a bill mandating psychological screening for officers after what happened in Forest County. She found that many small agencies in remote locations do not do checks because they lack the funding, as well as the psychologists to administer them. Psychological evaluations can cost anywhere from $300 to $500 per test — a figure that for some small agencies is significant.
While valuable, the testing is not a cure-all. Pre-conditional and post-conditional screenings are limited, and can only offer an estimate of possible, near-future behavior. John Nicoletti, Ph.D., has been doing police psychology for more than 30 years and has contracts with a number of law enforcement agencies. In accordance with the American Disabilities Act, Nicoletti explains he is allowed to ask more in-depth questions during post-conditional screening, when the officer has already been offered a job. This is also when they can perform test batteries aimed at assessing psychological and emotional functioning.
Still, he says, "Screening has a limited shelf life. An officer gets into law enforcement and a variety of other things start to happen. I don't think there's any screening that could predict that 10 years down the road an officer's going to kill their spouse … What really is needed is early detection; when an officer is employed and starts changing … what we call 'deviation from the baseline.' "
In addition to pre-conditional and post-conditional screening, psychologists like Nicoletti also offer special assignment screening for negotiators, provide counseling for officers and their families, and provide training for de-escalation, suicide issues, stress management and trauma. He says that usually law enforcement folks don't like utilizing traditional employee systems because, although the counselors are good, they don't always understand law enforcement and the unique stressors that come with it.
It boils down to prevention. Hraycheck states, "There is no empirical data that would show if Tyler would have passed or not." She says that even people who have passed the testing have, for whatever reason, gone on to do bad things. At the same time, she argues, "Risk management is a very big part of being a law enforcement administrator, and we will do everything possible within our means to manage risk for the public, as well as the safety of our officers."
Not providing screening at all can become a huge liability. If an incident happens and there's not an evaluation of the person available, it would be tough to defend the action. At this time, the Wisconsin bill mandating psychological screening did not get out of committee, and Hraycheck must decide whether she will go forward with it again this session.
A good fit for all
While many agencies hope for ample federal stimulus handouts in the coming days, hiring continues to pose problems, with small and rural departments having the hardest time of all. Despite being excellent training grounds, more officers choose to leave these agencies to seek out greater responsibility and competitive wages.
"Officers have to support their families and unfortunately, some of the smaller agencies in my jurisdiction, which are funded by their village and town boards, just don't have the finances to offer higher wages," Hraycheck says. "Still, some of the villages have worked very hard at being competitive; in fact, we have lost some county officers to larger villages. So, in some cases it has worked in reverse."
But this is the exception. Often small agencies have a tiny number of applicants to begin with, not to mention a high turnover rate. Where the big bucks cannot be found, departments must showcase what they can offer, such as one-on-one training or career enhancement pay for special skills.
Perhaps a common sense approach, Hraycheck emphasizes that above all else it's "important for departments to foster a culture within their agencies where employees want to stay … where they are treated well and respected, and are supported by their administration."
Quality law enforcement officers should never be a casualty of economic hardship — especially when both recruiters and the recruits continue to seek rewarding and lasting relationships. Despite challenges, good cops are out there … waiting to be found.