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Commentary

LAPD Must Reorganize Its Recruitment

November 22, 2000|CINDY MISCIKOWSKI | Cindy Miscikowski represents the 11th District and is chairwoman of the City Council's Public Safety Committee

Los Angeles is desperately looking for 884 good men and women. That's the difference between the Los Angeles Police Department's current authorized size, 10,054 officers, and its actual strength, 9,170. Recruitment, once an easy process, is now so difficult that the LAPD has not had a recruit class in two months.

Seven years ago, newly elected Mayor Richard Riordan called for expanding the department by 2,855 officers by mid-1998. The Clinton crime bills of the 1990s earmarked millions of dollars for cities to hire police, allowing Los Angeles to add 680 annually, focused on patrol and community policing.

In 1993, we had fewer than 8,000 officers; by 1995 we were hiring 100 a month. So why today's critical shortage? In 1998, the number of people taking the police officer exam began sliding, bottoming in 1999. A booming economy and low unemployment complicate the hiring of police nationwide. L.A.'s tough standards for police candidates make recruitment even harder. These factors, plus today's heightened, Rampart-related scrutiny of the department and slumping officer morale, have brought hiring to an all-time low. Even more troubling, the department's attrition rate is double its hiring rate. We have a crisis. Critical review and swift action are vital.

Recently, at the request of LAPD management, the city began casting a wider net, seeking recruits out of state. But the more than 7,000 out-of-state applicants tested in 11 months have yielded only 10 job offers. Many of these few applicants can't afford to move to Los Angeles for training, while others are still in school or the military. Clearly, out-of-state recruiting has failed.

We need 1,500 candidates a month for an academy class of 90. Eighty percent of applicants are lost during background investigation. Many are held up through "soft disqualification"--things like credit problems, past employment complaints or integrity issues. Most soft disqualifications begin a yearlong shuffling of the applicant's file between background investigators and the personnel department. Many eliminated at this stage don't know why and become frustrated with the poor communications, eventually losing interest. Others are snatched up by other law enforcement agencies while waiting to hear from the city.

One solution is to create a unit of case workers to oversee and expedite "soft-disqualification" cases and resolve background investigation glitches. Their role would be to communicate with candidates regularly to ensure their continued viability and assure applicants they're not forgotten. Case workers should be present from initial testing, to meet the candidates and follow them through the background investigation.

Beyond returning to local recruitment and making it easier for applicants, we must examine other possible immediate remedies. One is a total reorganization of current officers. Only one-third of sworn officers are now on patrol--about 3,000. The remainder are in special units and administration. Seven years of accelerated hiring has put alarmingly few cops on the street. We must focus on what our officers are actually doing, with a strong community presence in the "basic car" configuration as our highest priority. True community-based policing depends on having officers visible on the street.

Another solution is to expand the student worker program. Newly restarted after a 22-year lapse, this program takes recent high school graduates, many from law enforcement magnet programs or Junior ROTC, and provides them jobs in the department while they attend college. It bridges the gap between high school graduation and age 21, when applicants can join the force. Without this bridge we lose dedicated young people interested in law enforcement to other careers. This year's program was funded for only 30 student workers; they'll be hired by year's end. The program is a popular, important recruitment tool and needs expansion.

One factor in our retention problem is simply a characteristic of "generation X." Young people today change careers frequently. Many young officers leave for other police departments with more competitive salaries and benefits, while others choose new careers. We must create incentives for officers to stay.

The Los Angeles Police Department has a long and distinguished history as one of the most respected law enforcement agencies in the nation. The decision to be a police officer should communicate courage and integrity and demand respect. It's time to restore those ideals, bolster our officers' morale and reaffirm the department's compact with our citizens to "protect and serve."

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