February 10, 2007
Wanted: Police officers and lots of them
Seattle Times staff reporter
KEN LAMBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
The strong job market, the war in Iraq and a dwindling number of people interested in law-enforcement careers are making things difficult for police recruiters like Suzanne Long and Andre Sinn.
Long and Sinn, both veteran Seattle police officers, crisscross the Northwest on recruiting missions, traveling to job fairs, community festivals, high schools and college campuses. It's all an effort to find recruits amid fierce competition from other police departments and the military — and growing indifference from a new generation of job hunters.
The Seattle Police Department — the largest law-enforcement agency north of San Francisco, with a sworn force of 1,285 — hired 45 officers in 2006, and it expects to hire 80 officers this year. The numbers represent openings due to attrition as well as new positions created by the city since 2005.
"We've been to all corners of the state," Long said of the recruiting efforts. "We've gone to Idaho, Portland and Arizona. ... We spend a lot of time pounding the pavement [because] ... you really have to reach out and let people know this awesome career is there for the taking."
Pay for new police officers varies widely across the state, as shown in a 2005 salary survey ranking 121 departments. Dollar amounts represent an entry-level officer's monthly base salary, before taxes.
1. Edmonds Police Department $4,401
24. Everett Police Department $3,873
29. Seattle Police Department$3,849
54. Pierce County Sheriff's Office $3,648
58. Bellevue Police Department $3,627
61. Washington State Patrol $3,598
74. King County Sheriff's Office $3,483
89. Snohomish County Sheriff's Office $3,405
Source: Washington State Patrol Troopers Association
Police recruiters across the region report the same challenges when it comes to finding new officers, especially since they're now competing with out-of-state departments and even the federal government to fill a growing number of vacancies. The demand is even prompting a handful of departments to offer signing bonuses and other incentives that were once the sole purview of the private sector.
"The employment pool has kind of turned into a mist," said Sgt. Casey Krzyminski of the 21-officer Lake Forest Park Police Department. "People joining the job market don't seem to want to be cops."
The Iraq war is having an impact on local law-enforcement agencies because soldiers aren't being released from duty, stemming the flow of military personnel who often transition to police work. The state's robust economy also means new workers have plenty of career choices that don't involve the shift work, public scrutiny or physical danger inherent in law enforcement.
There's also the issue of aging baby boomers who are retiring in droves, along with officers who are increasingly leaving their departments for the private sector.
And the federal Department of Homeland Security is competing for the same people local police departments are looking to recruit, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank representing the country's largest police departments, including Seattle's.
Finding people to fill all the law-enforcement job openings "is a national problem — and it's going from being a national problem to a national crisis," Wexler said.
Even with so many vacancies in the country's law-enforcement agencies, Wexler suspects a police career isn't terribly attractive to new college grads trying to pay off enormous student loans.
"There's more of a sense that this generation is more interested in security and quality of life and, quite frankly, the opportunities in the private sector are financially more lucrative," Wexler said.
Police departments across the nation are being forced to change their recruiting strategies. Some are hiring marketing companies, using the Internet or going to shopping malls to find recruits — things they've never had to do before, Wexler said.
Police job fair
More than 60 law-enforcement agencies will be represented at a career fair hosted by the Seattle Police Department and the FBI on March 28. Though all are welcome, this fair will give special attention to women in law enforcement as agencies look to recruit more female officers. The career fair will run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Seattle University's Campion Hall, 901 12th Ave. For more information, call 206-615-0762.
In September, the State Patrol launched its first advertising campaign, buying ads on Metro buses and billboards at Qwest and Safeco fields, said the Patrol's recruiter, Sgt. Johnny Alexander. The Patrol, he said, needs to hire 54 cadets every nine months to cover current vacancies along with retirements and other departures.
Attracting and retaining commissioned employees is especially tough for the State Patrol because many other local agencies pay their officers more, Capt. Jeff De Vere said. In an effort to offer commensurate pay, De Vere said, Gov. Christine Gregoire's budget includes a proposed 4 percent cost-of-living increase for all Patrol employees in 2007 and 2008, along with pay increases for troopers, sergeants, lieutenants and captains working in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties.
Troopers working in King County would get a 10 percent pay boost, while those in Snohomish County would get a 5 percent raise and in Pierce County, a 3 percent increase.
The proposed geographic increases "are designed to address the high turnover rate we see in those areas," De Vere said, noting that many troopers can't afford to live in the communities where they work.
In a similar effort to boost employment, the Des Moines Police Department recently began offering $2,000 bonuses for experienced police officers who join the department and $1,000 bonuses for entry-level officers, Cmdr. John O'Leary said. Last summer, the Auburn Police Department increased the base pay for officers transferring from another agency, and sweetened the pot by offering $5,000 signing bonuses payable once those officers have completed six months on the job, Sgt. Jamie Sidell said.
Law-enforcement salaries vary by jurisdiction, with each city or county government determining pay scales and benefits packages. Though a high-school diploma is required by most departments, with some offering bonuses for college or university degrees, the Kirkland Police Department recently established a two-year degree as an educational minimum for new officers.
According to the Seattle Police Department's 2006 salary schedule, an entry-level officer earns just over $47,000 a year, while an officer with six years on the department makes a little more than $67,000 a year. While officers typically receive annual cost-of-living increases, overtime pay varies by officer, as do other pay incentives — depending on an officer's years of service and the unit to which he or she is assigned.
A rigorous process
To fill vacancies, police departments need to attract more applicants than there are openings because so many people will be rejected before they become sworn officers. Standards are high: A felony conviction, extensive drug use, a stack of speeding tickets, a pattern of poor choices or getting caught in a lie during any phase of the hiring process is enough to disqualify someone from becoming a police officer.
Many applicants simply don't meet hiring requirements or decide they're just not cut out for the job, said Deputy Jessica Sullivan, recruiter for the King County Sheriff's Office.
Though the chances a deputy will ever have to use lethal force are pretty low, "your chances of getting into fights are guaranteed," she said. "You have people spit in your face and call you all kinds of horrible names. If you don't have a thick skin or coping mechanisms to laugh it off, you're going to die out there."
Sullivan said her 724-member department typically loses 30 to 33 deputies a year, mostly to retirement. Given the time it takes to find, vet and train replacements, it usually takes 18 months before new deputies are ready to work on their own, she said. And at every stage of the process, Sullivan said, people are weeded out.
The hiring process is rigorous: It begins with a written exam and a physical-fitness test, followed by an initial interview, a polygraph test, a psychological assessment, a medical exam, a background investigation and an interview with a department's chief or sheriff, who has the final say on hiring.
After a job offer has been made, a new recruit undergoes months of police-academy training, followed by several more months of training in the field.
Area departments are especially interested in recruiting women and minorities to better reflect the communities they serve.
"We'd really like to see more women apply," said Deputy Jim Upton, a recruiter for the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office. Female officers, he said, "are just as good if not better at diffusing" volatile situations as their male counterparts.
Generally speaking, Seattle's Long and other police recruiters say, for every 20 people who apply to become a police officer, just one will make it to the streets.
Jon Walters, a former Mukilteo police chief, thinks the number is much lower.
Walters owns Public Safety Testing, a six-year-old Lynnwood company that conducts the first round of tests someone must pass on the way to becoming a police officer or sheriff's deputy.
Though the Seattle Police Department, State Patrol and other large agencies still conduct their own first-round tests, Walters said for many small and midsized agencies, administering written exams and physical fitness tests is too time- and labor-intensive.
Candidates using his company pay based on the number of agencies they want to apply to, then their test scores are automatically sent to those departments.
Test scores are ranked, creating a list of eligible candidates for the next stage of the recruiting process: the oral board interview, in which members of a department's hiring board pepper applicants with questions meant to gauge their responses to a variety of situations.
"If you want to get into this line of work, it's a journey — it's not like getting into accounting or getting that job at Microsoft. It's not quick ... and it's not easy," Walters told a class of two dozen people who recently attended a five-hour workshop at Public Safety Testing to help them prepare for oral board interviews.
Though there isn't a shortage of people wanting to become firefighters, Walters said police departments across the country are all having a tough time finding new officers, especially women and minorities.
"Everett just announced they'll be hiring [more officers]; you've got King County, Seattle, the State Patrol — there are dozens and dozens and dozens of jobs," he said. "It's a great time to be an applicant."
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