Police departments try new methods to recruit officers Thriving economy, grants create openings

July 06, 1998|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Surrounded by bustling shoppers at Owings Mills Town Center one recent Saturday, Baltimore City police Officer Kevin Daniels stood behind a table covered with pamphlets and brochures and waited for customers.

Soon, a 22-year-old wanted what Daniels was selling -- an opportunity to become a city officer.

"We have 200 to 220 positions to fill," Daniels said later. "We're really going all out, running ads, letting people know we need them."

Across the state, recruiters are looking for applicants like never before. A thriving economy and outside grants have swelled city and county coffers, fueling a hiring boom to fill new positions and vacancies. Competition, already intense because talent-hungry federal agencies such as the FBI and Secret Service are located nearby, has sometimes turned nasty -- with some departments raiding others for trained officers.

Police recruiters also face another formidable competitor -- private industry, which often offers better pay and benefits, as well as safer job descriptions.

"We're certainly more aggressive about this than anytime during the last 10 years," said Col. Kim Ward, commander of the Baltimore County Police Department's services bureau. "We're going after anybody who's qualified to do the job."

Only a few years ago, recruiters stapled posters to telephone poles, maybe ran a classified advertisement or attended a local job fair. Today, that's changed, as savvy officers-to-be apply to several agencies and then accept the best offer.

Baltimore County police restarted a recruiting unit, and Anne Arundel County's force has begun mailing notices to attract more minority applicants. Departments are buying more newspaper ads from Baltimore to Pennsylvania. They're displaying placards in Spanish at barber shops and ethnic stores, attending job fairs from Dover, Del., to Virginia Beach, Va., buying radio and television time.

Harford County sheriff's deputies have even extended their search for candidates to sobriety check points by handing out fliers -- to sober drivers and passengers.

And Baltimore City police are grooming ninth-graders. A group headed by the police commissioner has taken over Walbrook High School, creating the Uniformed Services Academy that will require students to choose among police, fire, maritime or business academies.

Recruiting other officers

The competition extends to existing officers: Prince George's County police have placed fliers under the windshield wipers of other jurisdictions' police cruisers.

"With the economy as strong as it is, there are just so many more opportunities out there," said Robert T. Scully, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, which represents about 200,000 officers nationwide. "There's definitely a reduced pool of recruits. And there's a heck of a lot more competition to get them."

In Prince George's, police are finally capping off hiring 1,400 officers promised by County Executive Wayne K. Curry in his 1994 campaign. Baltimore City police have to fill about 220 open positions, which include 100 funded by a federal grant awarded in May.

It's not just the new positions driving recruitment.

In Howard County, 21 officers have left during the past year for other police agencies, including the FBI and Prince George's police, where pay and benefits are better.

Average pay for recruits in Maryland is about $26,000. But some benefits and salaries vary depending on years of service and rank. In Howard County, officers make about $36,000 after working 10 years without promotions and can retire after 20 years with 39.1 percent of their pay. In Prince George's, the numbers are higher, with officers making almost $42,000 after a decade and retiring with 60 percent of their salaries.

Cost of replacements

Finding enough recruits doesn't necessarily mean those vacant positions will be filled.

It takes about 10 to 15 applicants to get one officer through a rigorous screening process that involves lie detectors, agility drills and written tests.

Though 18 Howard recruits will hit the streets in December, it took 1,000 applicants to fill that academy class.

"By the time they do the hiring process, it takes two years before they have a replacement," said Cpl. John Paparazzo, president of the Howard County police union. "We're losing experienced officers and it costs thousands to train them."

Officials say they'll never drop standards to fill jobs.

"If you lower your standards and start giving in, you can affect the integrity of an entire agency," said Sgt. Edward Hopkins, spokesman for the Harford County Sheriff's Department, which will hire 20 deputies during the next year. "We can't do that."

Influence of family, friends

Despite the frenzy and new recruiting methods, questions linger about whether those tools will reach enough applicants. Experts and police say becoming an officer isn't an easy decision -- it's usually sparked by a lifelong ambition to wear a badge and carry a gun.

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