Shortage Of New Recruits Leads Police Departments To Poach From Other Cities Police departments are struggling to recruit enough new officers. Some are resorting to poaching, while others are reshaping the job itself to appeal to people who grew up in the shadow of Ferguson.

Shortage Of New Recruits Leads Police Departments To Poach From Other Cities

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There's a shortage of police officers in this country. Police departments are having trouble recruiting enough new officers to replace the ones retiring. The latest national statistics show an overall drop in the number of working officers. On Morning Edition, we heard about how this makes the job more hectic for officers on patrol. Now NPR's Martin Kaste reports on how some departments are trying to refill their ranks.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Earlier this fall, there was a sign of the police recruiting shortage in Indianapolis - literally a sign - a billboard put up by the Seattle Police Department. Seattle was looking to hire away cops from Indianapolis.

VALERIE CUNNINGHAM: Poaching - poaching is, yeah - it's a less polite term, but it's exactly what it is.

KASTE: That's Valerie Cunningham, the deputy chief in Indianapolis. She oversees recruiting and training.

CUNNINGHAM: I've never seen that in my career, and I've been in this career for 27 years. I've never seen a Billboard pop up from another agency here in our own backyard.

KASTE: But that's the new reality in police recruiting. Departments are putting a lot more effort into the grass-is-greener-on-this-side-of-the-fence sales pitch.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Coming to Seattle was an easy decision for me. The transition was seamless. There was no age restriction, and there was lateral entry, which was an abbreviated and expedited hiring process.

KASTE: That Seattle's lateral recruiting video. The department is under pressure to diversify, and the video features an African-American officer relaxing in a high-rise apartment in downtown Seattle with a million-dollar waterfront view. Minority and women officers are hot commodities, but really all mid-career officers are valuable these days, with their hard-to-come-by experience.

DAN HALL: Oh, I think there's a lot more competition.

KASTE: Sheriff's Deputy Dan Hall on patrol here in Washington County, Ore., just outside Portland. He's just what many departments are desperate for - 11 years on the job, military experience before that.

HALL: Yeah, everybody talks about kind of what's going on with comparable agencies. You know, and I have looked at other things.

KASTE: He knows he could make more money somewhere else, but so far, he's resisted the temptation. He likes his colleagues here, and there's more to consider than pay. Hall keeps coming back to this one thing, a factor that might strike other people as trivial - his vest. It's the kind of vest that's covered with pockets and Velcro which lets him carry more of his gear high up instead of on his belt.

HALL: It's just carrying it in a different place makes a lot less painful for me in the long run.

KASTE: This is no small thing if your back hurts. A lot of departments don't allow these vests because they cover up the uniform. But a couple of years ago, Washington County decided to allow them. Undersheriff Jeff Mori says there's a larger strategy here to find the little things that help to attract and retain officers.

JEFF MORI: We did make policy changes. We now allow facial hair. We allow tattoos. We allow earrings.

KASTE: They're even willing to forgive an applicant's past use of marijuana, especially since it's now legal in Oregon. Still, none of this is enough to close the gap. Mori says his department has 55 job openings, forcing the current staff to work overtime. He's hoping to make up for some of this personnel shortage with technology.

MORI: The predictive analysis software that is being rolled out right now - there is going to be more predictive analysis being done for proactive policing. So we don't just randomly patrol. So we'd be more strategic about where we're sending resources.

KASTE: Still, he'd rather just have more deputies. Applicants no longer come to him or not enough of them, so he sees his job as similar to that of a football coach constantly scouting new prospects. Instead of waiting for people to apply to be deputies, he's sending recruiters to colleges and job fairs. It means seeking out people who might never have thought of becoming a cop, and he says that also means acknowledging that younger people today are more skeptical about police work.

MORI: I don't know if they want to be cops as much as the previous generation as much as they want to do something that's bigger than themselves. They're very community-focused. They view themselves as community builders.

KASTE: And police recruiting is starting to reflect that. You see the change in the videos. Just a couple of years ago, the recruiting videos tended to play up guns and gear.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As narrator) Defeat the enemy...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As narrator) ...Anyway you can.

KASTE: But nowadays, the videos are more about diversity and helping people. And the gung-ho tone has been replaced by cornball humor, such as the Fort Worth Police Department's recent videos featuring "Star Wars" characters learning to be cops.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Wookie, speaking Shyriiwook).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) I'm sorry, sweetheart. I don't understand a thing you're saying.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Wookie, speaking Shyriiwook).

CUNNINGHAM: The most successful recruiting campaigns look at the side of policing that is about giving back and actually kind of the fun and friendly side. That's what tends to draw them to this profession.

KASTE: Deputy Chief Valerie Cunningham in Indianapolis saying she's also noticed this change in how departments appeal to potential recruits.

CUNNINGHAM: I think we have to recruit differently, and I think they're going to end up policing differently. But I don't think it's a negative. I think it's a positive.

KASTE: A positive because she thinks the current recruiting crisis is actually pushing departments more quickly toward the kind of policing that younger Americans want to see. Martin Kaste, NPR News.


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