Cities compete for cops to fill out ranks

For P. Whitney Richtmeyer, the decision to leave paradise was easy. After four years as a police officer on the island of Maui, Mr. Richtmeyer accepted a job this year with a sheriff's department outside Seattle - even if it meant trading his swim trunks for an umbrella. The reason: a $14,000 raise and better hours.

"I miss swimming in the ocean every day," he says. "But with the amount of hours I was putting in, I was basically just working and sleeping."

Richtmeyer is one of a growing number of police officers who are leaving their hometown beats to don shields and blues for other departments.

With cops in demand throughout much of the United States, cities such as Seattle are sending recruiting missions across the country to attract veteran officers rather than relying just on police academy graduates. The result: a new mobility - and competition - for cops that is benefiting some departments but causing others to worry about turnover and the impact on public safety.

While numbers tracking this kind of extraregional recruitment are scarce, criminologists and police officials say the exodus is far more pronounced than ever before. "As mobile as today's society is, it's real easy for an officer to relocate," says John Cary Bittick, vice president of the National Sheriffs Association and sheriff of Georgia's Monroe County. "It's not unusual to see officers move from one part of the state to another or one part of the country to another. Twenty years ago it was unheard of."

The enticements to relocate can be overwhelming. According to the National Association of Police Organizations, a police officer in New York City earns $50,000 on average while an officer in affluent neighboring Suffolk County earns $75,000. But most often, the departments that lose out are located in rural or depressed areas. In Hawaii, which has been mired in a deep recession for most of the 1990s, lieutenants with 15 years of experience earn the same amount or less as deputies or patrolmen with five years experience in the Northwest. In poor rural areas, starting pay can dip into the low teens.

"Some parts of the country you could go to flipping burgers in McDonald's and make more money," says Mr. Bittick.

This stands in stark contrast to Seattle, where officers are eagerly sought after. "We used to get 1,200 to 1,600 applications for every test. Now we only get 400," says John Urquhart, a public-information officer for the King County Sheriff Department outside Seattle. "You can go to work for Microsoft."

The King County tactic of using recruiters to fill department vacancies is becoming standard practice nationwide. And the response to these recruiting drives can be remarkable. When the local police union in Honolulu put a notice in a newsletter that a recruiting team from King County would be coming, hundreds of officers signed up for interviews - so many that the recruiters had to schedule a second visit to get to all the applicants.

For Richtmeyer and other officers, the move has allowed them to change their lifestyle. Rural officers in the South often work two or three jobs to try to get ahead, and in expensive Hawaii, most cops work overtime just to make ends meet.

Not only that, but officers in the Northwest also get full medical benefits, pay raises for continuing college education, allowances for uniforms, and even cellular phones and modern patrol cars - things lacking in most poor departments. "Even if I were paid $10,000 more in Hawaii than I am getting here, I would still prefer to work here," says Richtmeyer. "Departments are more progressive and more responsive to the officers' needs."

Forgotten departments

Many of the departments left behind, however, have had trouble coping. In Georgia, state officials passed a law requiring officers to reimburse the law- enforcement agency for the costs of their training if they leave the force or change jobs before a minimum tenure is completed. But such laws are difficult to enforce, and sheriffs are unwilling to keep unhappy personnel who might want to leave but are not able to pay the reimbursement. "It's not a good idea," says Sheriff Butch Reece of rural Jones County in Georgia. "You can't squeeze blood from a turnip."

Once a poor department begins to lose officers, it finds itself in a cycle of spending more to train new officers but being unable to raise pay to retain experienced officers. "It does get frustrating when you put someone through a police academy and then they hang out a year and then they quit," says Bob DelCore of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

What's more, these same departments are unable to get qualified recruits to replace departed veterans. "We have a harder time hiring employees than we ever have had in the past," says Mr. Reece. In a recent job hunt, 62 people applied for a radio dispatcher position at Reece's department. "Eleven had criminal records and one was wanted - so we arrested him," says Reece.

Effects of understaffing

While law-enforcement leaders are loath to admit that these migrations are affecting the quality of policing, the strains clearly show. In Washington, D.C., the police department has the nation's highest incidence of accidental shootings and inadvertent weapons discharges for an agency of its size. This was partially due to the fact that watch commanders working with understaffed shifts did not allow patrol officers to take required firearms-training sessions, according to a recent Washington Post article.

Meanwhile, in rural areas, officers are often forced to respond to domestic disturbances singlehanded - a practice that is frowned upon in better staffed areas. "You reach a point after a while where it affects your mental health," says Sgt. Rick Wheeler, Oahu chapter chairman for the local police union. "I think there is a tendency for people to be a little snappier. These guys are only human."

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