COMPTON — The audience would not surrender.
Those at the recent community meeting had a recurring question for Police Cmdr. Tom Armstrong: Why doesn't the Compton Police Department have more officers?
Since last summer, Armstrong said, the department has been trying to recruit 18 new officers. But despite its best efforts, only five have been hired. He spoke of how Compton has to compete with law enforcement giants such as the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department for the few qualified candidates who are available.
But the debate only got louder.
One woman insisted that if the department has not been able to fill its openings, it is because it has not been recruiting hard enough.
The commander, seemingly exasperated, measured his words: "Lady, would you want your son or husband to be a Compton police officer?"
The argument ended.
Faced with one of the county's highest murder rates, ever increasing problems with drugs and gangs, and numerous citizen complaints about slow response time, the Compton City Council agreed last July to expand its police force from 120 officers to 138.
The department now has 125 officers and it does not appear that it will be fully staffed in the near future, administrators say.
Cmdr. Anthony Ruiz, who oversees Compton's recruiting efforts, said his department is hampered because there are more local job openings for police officers than there are qualified candidates.
The Sheriff's Department is attempting to hire 700 officers this year and the Los Angeles Police Department wants to expand its force by 200 before July. Each agency said it goes through about 40 potential recruits for each officer who is hired.
50 Openings a Year
Personnel Director Sally Taylor said Compton has received 460 applications for the police force since July. Taylor said her department has publicized the openings by running job notices in law enforcement journals and sending representatives to local colleges.
In neighboring Long Beach, 50 recruits are hired annually. To achieve that quota the city assigns six officers to six-week stints as full-time recruiters. That effort brings in about 1,500 of the 2,500 applications the department receives, officials said, with most of the rest coming through advertisements on radio and in local publications.
"These are used especially to reach women and minority applicants," said Mario Beas, Long Beach's Civil Service recruitment officer.
Compton City Manager James C. Goins said that if this year's expansion goal is not reached, he will propose sending a recruiter to Southern black colleges such as Grambling State University in Louisiana.
"It looks like we might have to go on a national recruitment drive, because we have tried locally," Goins said.
Although Compton, Long Beach, Los Angeles and the Sheriff's Department all pay new officers about $30,000 a year, Ruiz asserted that applicants are more apt to go where the pace is easier than it is in Compton. He said the slowest shift in Compton is probably comparable to the busiest in those other agencies.
Indeed, according to the most recent survey conducted by the state attorney general's Bureau of Criminal Statistics, Compton has about 1.3 sworn officers for every 1,000 residents--slightly below the statewide average of 1.9 officers. At the same time, the city reported crime figures to the FBI that--when broken down on a per-officer basis--indicate that the workload of Compton police is twice the state average and higher than in any other Southeast / Long Beach area city, including Los Angeles.
"When you start your shift (in Compton) you know you are going to be working all night," Ruiz said. "These guys might go out with 15 calls pending, two of which are shootings. It doesn't take much before an officer would reach a point of saturation, so we need people with a good work ethic. . . . Because around here, we have some good crooks."
But those who are too anxious to see some action are eliminated quickly, Ruiz said. After losing a large majority of its applicants for failing either the department's physical or intelligence standards, half of those left are eliminated for personality reasons, usually over-aggressiveness.
Stuart Schaffer, a psychologist who does testing for several law enforcement agencies, said Compton's mental health exam is among the area's toughest.
Public Service Emphasis
"What we look for with Compton is an applicant with a strong public service orientation," Schaffer said, "somebody who sees the job as something that benefits the community and is not out to only benefit himself. We also look for somebody, and this is different (from most applicants), who can exercise a high degree of independent judgment who can also follow orders willingly when that is necessary."
Ruiz said it is increasingly difficult to find officers capable of handling the mounds of paper work involved in law enforcement.