Gaps in the Long Blue Line

One of the Clinton administration's minor victories in this year's budget battle was money to hire 50,000 more police officers around the country. This is part of the community policing initiative first signed into law in 1994.

This year's added funding is supposed to boost police hiring toward the goal of 100,000 new officers, as envisioned six year ago.

But the vision is behind schedule. All those new cops, walking beats and getting to know local people, were intended to be on the job by the end of next year. The best the administration can claim now is that, at least, the money will be in hand by next year. The officers themselves may take a few years more.

What's going on here is considerably more than budgetary or bureaucratic foot-dragging in Washington. The story behind the story is that police departments around the country are having a difficult time recruiting new officers.

Why? Start with today's ever-booming economy, which gives young people many more work or career options. If that sounds familiar, you're right. The same problem confronts the teaching profession and, most acutely, the armed forces.

There is also the issue of a poor fit between freedom-loving '90s youth and a career that demands strict discipline and deference to authority. Sadly, polls also indicate drooping public respect for the police, with many more people assuming police brutality is a common practice than in the past. The often brutal portrayal of police work in the entertainment media may contribute to that perception.

Images can be improved, however. The very concept of "community policing" is a corrective, with its emphasis on the sociology of police work, not just its macho aspects.

But it's not so easy to change economic realities. Recruiters, especially in urban areas, are doing their best to highlight the rewards of the job - public service, job stability, as well as salary. But in many places the number of applicants showing up for police exams has been disappointing. New York, for instance, spent $10 million on recruitment this year but only 15,000 signed up for the test, compared with 32,000 in 1996.

Traditionally, police departments hire about 1 of every 100 applicants. As with teachers, standards should not relax in order to make up the shortfall. The challenge is to present these critically important jobs in a more positive light - as not just a first step on the economic ladder, but a meaningful life's work.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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