Calling all future police officers

A shortage of recruits has law-enforcement agencies across the US scrambling to fill the ranks.

It seems that police work - the ho-hum "protect and serve" variety once glamorized in the 1970s and '80s on TV shows like "Adam-12," "CHiPs," and "Hill Street Blues" - went out with wide lapels.

The result is a major shortage of police recruits - which has reached crisis proportions in some cities - and fewer cops on the street than top brass say are needed for public protection.

The problem has several sources: low pay, a big hole left by retiring baby boomers, and an image problem that steers the few young people who are interested in law-enforcement careers toward crime-scene investigation and forensics, rather than everyday street patrols.

To remedy the manpower shortage, some law-enforcement agencies are getting creative. They are giving new recruits help with down payments on homes and, for experienced officers in other locales, they are offering signing bonuses for switching to a new city. They're even encouraging their own officers to find new recruits in exchange for extra vacation time.

"I haven't been to a place in this country where agencies aren't concerned about the number and quality of their officers," says Elaine Deck, who studies recruitment issues for the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Alexandria, Va.

The shortage has made officer retention a top concern of police departments, most of which report they are 10 percent shy of the numbers they need, she says. Law-enforcement agencies say the consequences are slower emergency-response times and backlogs in criminal cases.

In an aggressive move to get more boots on the ground, the Houston Police Department wants to offer $7,000 signing bonuses to any police officer who moves here and completes a 12-week modified training academy.

The idea is to lure experienced officers from other Texas law-enforcement agencies, so the city won't have to spend as much time training them. In return, the relocated officers will receive financial credit for up to five years of experience elsewhere - something that is not typically done.

The proposal came before a city council committee last week and hasn't yet been set for a full vote. The department hopes to train 70 "lateral" officers - those with experience in other Texas agencies - in March.

"I can't ever remember having a full lateral class, but we are already getting inquiries," says Craig Ferrell Jr., the department's general counsel, who says lateral classes average between 25 and 35 officers.

At the San Diego County Sheriff's Department in California, officials say such incentives are working. Down 10 percent on its staffing earlier this year, the department tripled its advertising budget and began offering signing bonuses of up to $5,000.

"It's starting to pick up. The incentives are helping," says Lt. Mike Barletta in the department's personnel division. "What we are actually doing is robbing nearby agencies of their people."

The recruiting has left some hard feelings at nearby agencies, but the sheriff's department's ad campaign is helping overall recruitment in the area by promoting law enforcement as a desirable career, he says.

The San Diego County department, like many agencies nationwide, began to see the number of recruits fall in the 1990s, but the drop-off became a crisis only in the past few years as retirements increased.

Lieutenant Barletta, for his part, also blames the media, which he says began to demonize police officers after the Rodney King beating by Los Angeles police officers in 1991.

"The glamour was taken off the job, and people began to think that all cops were bad," he says. "Who would want to put up with that?"

To try to make law enforcement an appealing career again, agencies across the nation are resorting to advertising campaigns. Others are changing physical agility tests to more accurately reflect the kind of work their officers do. Some are streamlining the recruiting process to put officers on the streets faster.

Some analysts ask, though, if such efforts will yield many recruits among a generation of young people with different ideas about work. "Those of us who began working in the 1960s and '70s live to work. Our identity is wrapped up in what we do," says Ms. Deck. "Young people today work to live. They are more concerned about spending time with family and friends."

That means working late or on weekends is less acceptable. The average starting salary, $32,000 a year, is another deterrent - especially as the economy picks back up.

"Police work, like patrolling, is dangerous, and the pay is too low," says Brittaney Riojas, a bubbly junior at Houston's High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice.

Like many of her fellow students who have grown up in the computer age, Brittaney doesn't find old-fashioned police work very exciting. She wants to do crime-scene investigations. "Shows like 'CSI,' 'Without a Trace,' 'Numb3rs,' they make it seem so interesting," she says.

Aaron Najera, a junior, is one of the few at the magnet school interested in traditional policing. Given the staffing shortages, he doesn't expect to have a problem getting a police job here when he turns 21. "Since I was a kid, I've wanted to be a superhero who went around helping people. I figure the closest thing to that is a police officer."

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