2000 — the year in review:
With few exceptions last year, law enforcement agencies found themselves in the once-unthinkable position of having to compete with the private sector as well as with each other for qualified applicants who would have been readily available if not for the robust economy. The personnel crisis was all the more acute for some departments whose ranks were significantly depleted by attrition, as retirement caught up with officers hired during the 1970s, while many younger officers simply packed it in, overwhelmed by job-related frustrations.
The array of personnel quandaries facing law enforcement sparked numerous changes in hiring and recruitment, as some departments questioned the feasibility of existing college requirements, while others fought against proposed higher education prerequisites on the grounds that it was already tough enough getting people to apply.
In September, the New York City Police Department, under new Commissioner Bernard Kerik, decided to waive a two-year college standard to increase the agency’s applicant pool. The move made eligible nearly half of the city’s 5,000 traffic agents and school safety officers by allowing them to substitute two years of work experience for 60 college credits.
The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education tabled a proposal that would have made a four-year college degree a requirement of employment for police officers hired after Jan. 1, 2010. At issue was the difficulty in finding candidates and in college-educated applicants’ expectations of higher pay.
Under an agreement reached in March between the NAACP and New Jersey officials, if the State Police can recruit enough minority candidates with four-year degrees to take the department’s entry exam over the next three years, the agency can add a bachelor’s degree as a criterion for employment. The agreement resolved a suit filed in 1996.
For many departments in the Midwest, finding qualified candidates was not enough — desperately needed were recruits who could speak Spanish. From Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Elgin, Ill., police searched for that most elusive grail, the bilingual officer, to enhance public safety in jurisdictions where the immigrant population had grown exponentially during the 1990s.
“We’re having a lot of difficulty getting Spanish-speaking officers,” said Council Bluffs, Iowa, Police Chief Keith Mehlin in October. With a huge influx of Latin American immigrants over the past four years, the department has been caught short, with just one Latino officer who is fluent and several others who can speak the language fairly well.
The need for bilingual officers was felt throughout the Midwest last year. Drawn by the meat-packing and food distribution industries, the percentage of Hispanics rose in Wisconsin by 50.4 percent from 1990 to 1999, and in Iowa by 89 percent. Nebraska’s Hispanic population more than doubled in that time.
In Elgin, Ill., police hired a bilingual civilian employee as its outreach coordinator to assist in recruiting Spanish-speaking residents for sworn positions and dispatcher jobs. Lieut. Mike Turner said his department had 15 bilingual officers out of 166 sworn personnel, but they are not always available when needed. Turner called the recruitment of Spanish-speaking officers a “huge problem” that seems to be increasing.
Police in Omaha added a $50 monthly increment to the pay of any officer fluent in Spanish. A similar arrangement was made in Des Moines, which also gives top hiring consideration to bilingual officers. “If you want a job as a cop and can speak a couple of other languages,” said Chief William Moulder, “you’re a much more attractive candidate.”
Attractive candidates are in such demand that experienced officers have become the object of recruiters’ desire, as jurisdictions fight to keep their personnel from being lured to larger, better paying, arguably more desirable agencies.
“It’s a constant battle,” said Sheriff Dave Owens of McLean County, Ill. “It’s getting harder and harder to find qualified people. And once they have training and experience, it’s easier for them to find a job with a bigger agency.”
Portland, Ore., Police Chief Mark Kroeker was expected to fly to Virginia Beach, where he and his recruiters would discuss starting salaries of $32,000 which would rise by $8,000 after six months, low crime and skiing nine months of the year.
“While I do have a concern that additional people are recruiting in our area, I think we’re holding our own,” said Norfolk, Va., Police Chief Melvin C. High, whose agency has also been eyed hungrily by recruiters from Seattle and Los Angeles.
Other cities are not quite as lucky as Norfolk, however. For several agencies, an unexpected turnover rate is making recruitment an even more pressing issue.
The Suffolk, Va., Police Department in November extended its deadline for recruits by two weeks after it received just a handful of applications. The final tally was 56 — less than half the number who took the exam in previous years. The department has not been able to fill the 155 slots approved since 1998. Some three-quarters of the agency’s patrol force is made up of rookie officers.
In Madison, Wis., a wave of resignations, retirements and terminations came just as the agency had rolled out a variety of special units, including its Traffic Enforcement Safety Team, the advisability of which was questioned by police union officials. “It’s one more drain on precious resources,” said union president Sue Armagost.
Inkster, Mich., Mayor Hilliard Hampton ordered an emergency pay increase last year for officer candidates with more than two years’ experience. The 34-member agency is down 12 officers. Hampton also pulled the department out of a Wayne County drug task force to keep officers on the street.