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THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

May You Be With the Force

Police agencies in the U.S., faced with rapidly thinning ranks, get creative to recruit. The tactics include personal visits and such perks as taking cruisers home.

February 28, 2002|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOCA RATON, Fla. — Police Chief Andrew J. Scott III carries a badge and a gun. And a pizza, if that's what it takes these days to get his man or woman.

Tonight, however, Scott has his hands free as he arrives at dusk at a home in the Palm Beach County community of Boynton Beach. Standing in the driveway is the man Scott is looking for, a security guard named Jim Brown.

Scott hasn't come to slap the cuffs on Brown but to meet the 38-year-old former Coast Guardsman, his family and a colleague from work over dinner and deliver an in-person pitch on why he should apply for a job at the Boca Raton Police Department.

"I want to see you, eyeball to eyeball," Scott, spiffily turned out in his Class A dress blues, tells Brown. "I want you to know that my investment in you is going to be $100,000, and I want to get that back."

Although the prestige of law enforcement arguably has never been higher because of the courage and devotion of police officers on Sept. 11, finding men and women to wear the uniform and risk their lives to enforce the law has never been more problematic for many of the country's 18,000 police departments.

Because of multiple factors--the large cohort of Vietnam War veterans now retiring, more stringent educational requirements, better-paying jobs in the private sector--America's thin blue line has never seemed thinner.

"I don't know any police department that can say right now: 'We've got enough people,' " said Officer Jack Richter, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department. The LAPD, which has an authorized strength of 10,196 sworn personnel, has 8,910 officers.

If any city should have experienced a surge in applications since Sept. 11, it would be New York. But the number of candidates there who signed up to take the entry exam has actually dropped in the last year. Meanwhile, the number of retiring officers soared by 87%. For Raymond W. Kelly, the new police commissioner, replenishing the ranks is a priority, and New York's finest are hardly alone.

"It's been much more of a challenge over the last decade as police everywhere have struggled with trying to recruit a new generation and filling the ranks of the people who have been in policing 20 to 25 years and are now getting ready to retire," said Elaine Deck, project coordinator at the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police, a professional organization based in Alexandria, Va.

To help the nation's smaller police departments, Deck runs seminars on how to recruit and train personnel. "Everyone is going back to square one to see how to promote police work," she said.

In Sunnyvale, Calif., the public safety department now tries to entice candidates by promising them training and jobs as both police officers and firefighters, with assignments on a rotating basis. Like many law enforcement agencies today, the Beaufort County, S.C., sheriff's office lets employees take their cruisers home and pays a $1,200 bonus for recruits who speak Spanish well.

In New York City, Commissioner Kelly has said he will ask the state Legislature to allow his officers to get some retirement benefits while still working, in hopes that will staunch the outflow.

One unscientific but informative barometer for the employment situation can be found in the pages of American Police Beat, the largest-circulation newspaper for police officers. Donna Markussen, who works in advertising sales, reports only a "slight drop" since Sept. 11 in the number of ads placed by departments looking to hire.

"It's still a bad scenario for most agencies," said Markussen, speaking from the monthly's offices in Cambridge, Mass. "They can't get enough applicants." Departments are so chronically hungry for people that some, including the Louisiana State Police and the Seattle Police, have been buying ads for three years straight, she said.

One of the new complications, say specialists, is that Generation Xers, unlike the stereotypically rumpled police sergeants and detectives of TV and moviedom, are not ready to toil for years on modest salaries in exchange for a pension two decades or more down the road.

"You've got to front-load the benefits and raise the level of salaries to get the more educated person," said Sgt. Steven Brancazio, in charge of hiring and training in Boca Raton. This year, Boca Raton raised the starting salary of its officers by more than $3,000, to $37,980. Despite the boost, and plenty of other benefits, the 162-person department has nine openings.

"The difference with the Generation Xers is, when I came on I was grateful to have a job," said Scott, who has nearly a quarter-century of experience in police work. "The new generation wants higher pay, more benefits and will quickly go to another organization for $1,000 more a year."

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