Police Departments Face Staffing, Recruitment Shortage

Police departments across the country are chronically understaffed and facing a crisis in meeting recruitment goals. They say a perfect storm of Sept. 11, wars on two fronts and aging demographics has cut down the supply of people who want to be cops.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Police departments would have an easier time recruiting if a cop's life were the way it's depicted in Hollywood, but few officers live in million-dollar homes and they don't always get the bad guy. So police recruiters can't offer the prospect of glamour to prospective officers, but departments across the country are short-staffed and they're aggressively competing for candidates.

Debra Baer of member station KPCC in Los Angeles reports.

DEBRA BAER: As waves of baby boomers retire, demographics are not on the side of police departments says Anthony Batts, the chief of police in Long Beach.

Mr. ANTHONY BATTS (Chief of Police, Long Beach Police Department): We've gone through baby boomers, the echo boomers and now to generation X, and the reality is that the population pool period is shrinking in the United States. The number of applicants who become police officers is getting smaller.

HANSEN: So departments are stealing from each other. Batts says Long Beach lost a lot of officers last year to smaller cities like Irvine and Huntington Beach, until the city approved big pay raises.

Mr. BATTS: Smaller agencies have figured out they don't have to put the money in to train someone to go through the academy. They go through a medium-seized organization like Long Beach or a major-sized organization like Los Angeles and entice the senior officers over with bonuses, with higher pay.

BAER: Ten thousand dollar signing bonuses are becoming more common, along with mortgage assistance. The California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training reports that in this state alone, 600 law enforcement agencies are short 10,000 to 15,000 officers. Jeremy Wilson with the RAND Center on Quality Policing says it's the same story across the nation, and the bidding war is putting cities with budget problems at a disadvantage like New Orleans and San Diego.

Mr. JEREMY WILSON (Associate Director, RAND Center on Quality Policing): Agencies that aren't able to pay salaries similar to other organizations are going to find it much more difficult to remain competitive in today's environment.

Mr. KENNY GARNER (Los Angeles Police Department): When the CIA and the FBI are advertising on buses, then, you know, you either got a problem or it's serious.

BAER: That's Los Angeles Police Commander Kenny Garner, who's in charge of an aggressive campaign to hire nearly a thousand new officers.

Mr. GARNER: Recruiting in today's environment, we have the perfect storm -9/11, wars on two different fronts - and so the eligible men and women are either on the security front or law enforcement front or in the armed services. Everybody's hiring in one time.

(Soundbite of media ad)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #1: Leave us alone.

Unidentified Man #2: Driver's got a gun.

BAER: Departments that can afford it are pulling out all the stops with sleek media campaigns and Web sites touting the excitement of police work.

(Soundbite of media ad)

Unidentified Man #3: All right. Show me around.

Unidentified Man #4: For the officers of the LAPD, it's all in a day's work.

BAER: Hiring cops is a numbers game says Steve Krull, head of the California Police Chiefs Association. The screening and background checks are exhaustive, and the training is rigorous.

Mr. STEVE KRULL (President, California Police Chiefs Association): It takes about a hundred applicants to produce one person who makes it all the way through.

BAER: Krull says many law enforcement agencies have had to adjust their standards. For example, credit problems and bankruptcy were once disqualifiers. Now, it depends on the circumstances. Some police academies are offering financial management courses and revising physical fitness requirements. And many departments have abandoned their zero tolerance policy for drugs, opting to focus on how long ago rather than whether a person used. But lowering standards is a slippery slope, says Long Beach Police Union President Lieutenant Stephen James.

Lieutenant STEPHEN JAMES (President, Long Beach Police Union): It certainly makes people uncomfortable but at the same time we don't have enough officers on the street.

BAER: Staring down a staffing crisis, police recruiters are pushing the envelope in surprising ways. Lieutenant James learned just how far when he was in Boston's Fenway Park recently and went to the men's room during the game.

Lt. JAMES: And in front of every other urinal was an advertisement by the Scottsdale Police Department in Boston to recruit people to come to Scottsdale, Arizona to be police officers. If that's where we're trying to recruit, we really have had to try to think outside the box.

(Soundbite of media ad)

Unidentified Man #5: Get away from the car or I'll shoot her.

Unidentified Man #6: I'm going to kill her, man.

Unidentified Man #7: Listen to me.

Unidentified Woman #2: Please.

Unidentified Man #7: Why don't you just let her go?

BAER: For NPR News, I'm Debra Baer.

(Soundbite of media ad)

Unidentified Man #8: (Unintelligible) out.

Unidentified Man #9: Hey, John(ph), lower the gun, buddy.

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