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In search of recruits, police loosen up a bit

By Julie Finnin Day Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 31, 2001



It was the final push in Boston's most expensive police recruiting effort ever. They had turned six beat officers into full-time recruiters. They put ads in 18 newspapers.

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They visited high schools and churches in their crisp blues, touting the virtues of wearing a badge. They even held an open house at police headquarters, lining up officers - including the bomb squad - to answer questions.

The department was hoping to attract 4,000 applicants. It got less than half that.

Boston's experience symbolizes a growing problem in precincts from Long Island to Los Angeles.

As a generation of veteran officers prepares to retire, departments are struggling to convince a new generation to carry batons and walk a beat.

Beneath this trend lie demographic shifts reaching back to the 1970s, when police ranks nationwide swelled with Vietnam War veterans - the ones now retiring. Police departments historically have relied on former military personnel to feed their ranks. But today there are fewer people coming out of the military. Furthermore, young people today have quite different values than their predecessors. Not to mention better education and high-paying job options in a vibrant economy.

"These are people who look very differently at the world than the baby boomers who preceded them," says Elaine Deck, a researcher for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, who consults with police departments on recruitment. "They are not very responsive to 'stovepipe' organizations that are very militaristic in their organization."

As the demographic ground shifts under the boots of police departments, leaders are going to great lengths - from national recruiting drives to organizational restructuring - to appeal to the incoming generation. And, Ms. Deck says, "There's a lot of head-scratching going on."

Large departments are scouring the country for recruits. Los Angeles is 900 officers short in its force of 10,000, prompting recruiter trips as far as Boston.

Federal helping hand

Police agencies are rushing to take advantage of President Clinton's six-year, $8 billion federal grant program designed to put 100,000 officers on the streets. As of January, only 73,600 had been hired. Many departments have applied for extensions.

If the Xers won't come to them, many departments are thinking about how to go to Xers.

"Young people today want to feel included in the decisionmaking process," Deck says. "They don't mind being told what to do, but they want to feel included."

While some larger departments are responding with mentoring programs for new recruits, some of the most innovative changes are happening in the smaller departments, she says. Many of these are actually modifying the "stovepipes."

In Lexington, Mass., an affluent New England town, Police Chief Chris Casey is shifting more responsibility to the lower levels of a 52-officer force (and he wouldn't use the word "lower").

"We've completely changed how we manage our police officers," Chief Casey says. "We used to be hierarchical and paramilitary. Now we are opening up lines of communication to the chief."

A visit to the department's red-brick building bears this out.

New culture at work

On a sunny winter afternoon, 14 staffers - officers, lieutenants, dispatchers, a mechanic, and the union president - took their seats around a long wooden table, along with a management consultant. On the walls hung yellowed photographs of police squads from generations before. If those officers could have heard the meeting in this room, surely they would have wondered if they were in a police station at all.

This group, which convenes every six weeks, has been a driving force behind departmental changes that until a few years ago were the province of the police chief. They convinced Casey to replace their 1965 uniforms with newly designed ones, at an estimated cost of $30,000 or more. They lobbied successfully to start a motorcycle unit, which involved extensive training and the lease of several vehicles. On this day, their agenda includes officer requests for more firing-range time to hone their marksmanship.

This ability to affect workplace change seems unprecedented in the police world.

"Years ago, they would have just said 'forget it' before you even started" recommending improvements, says Lt. Charles Sargent, a veteran officer who's come to appreciate the changes in Lexington's entrenched culture. "I know I've benefited from this."

In Lindenhurst, Ill., a town of 12,000 by the Wisconsin border, Chief Jack McKeever thinks often about how to keep his 13 officers happy.

Like other departments, a mentoring program helps young officers feel more engaged, answering questions from "Where is the locker room?" to "Where did that regulation come from?"

Chief McKeever has also assessed traditional regulations, paring away some that didn't seem important. Now, his officers (whose average age is 28) can wear stud earrings and grow beards. They eat lunch together for the first time - an important change, given the loneliness of patrol cars. And he has transferred responsibilities to officers and staff.

McKeever acknowledges some drawbacks to this newly egalitarian culture.

"You're taking a chance. When you get away from the idea of clear, quasi-military effort, you are putting a lot of responsibility in the hands of a young person," he says. "If it goes wrong, everyone is hurt."

But in the end, this kind of change is inevitable, McKeever adds. "The old days of 'Do it because I said so' are over."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society