Small towns seek qualified police

Applicants drifting to larger departments with more resources

`Everyone wants them'

March 20, 2000|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

Wanted: physically fit, mentally stable people with squeaky-clean backgrounds, who are willing to put their lives on the line for mediocre pay and little glamour.

Small-town police chiefs are struggling to find recruits who meet the standards. With unemployment near a record low, the number of applicants for small-town police work is falling, as towns watch officers in place being lured away by larger communities promising higher pay.

Police applicants have to submit to a battery of physical, mental and moral tests.

"You're left with the Eagle Scout type, and you're asking them to work for $24,000 a year," said Hampstead Police Chief Kenneth Meekins, in Carroll County. He has had the modest goal since the fall of expanding his force to seven officers from six, a figure that includes himself.

Last month, his officers responded to three assaults, two car thefts, two burglaries, two cases of domestic abuse, one noncrime-related death, four juvenile complaints and nine car accidents. They also patrolled the streets of the town of 4,500, greeted merchants by name, and attended public meetings.

Meekins sees the faxes from other police departments arrive in his office, offering his officers more money and better benefits. "Every one of my new officers has been solicited by another jurisdiction," he said.

One of those officers is Sgt. Phil Kasten, a police dog handler who also performs the routine tasks the other Hampstead officers share. He handles his investigations from start to finish, with none of the specialized staff larger departments have.

"I've had folks talk to me from other agencies," said Kasten, 26, a Marine Corps veteran and valedictorian of his police academy class in 1996. "I'd be lying if I sat here and told you I didn't think about it. We all think about it."

In November, Meekins advertised for an additional officer in two newspapers and on the town Web site. Sixteen people responded. Two years ago, his newspaper ads alone attracted 56 applicants.

Of the 16 who applied, six showed up for a physical agility test. One applicant was eliminated during a background check. A second was snapped up by another police force.

That leaves four candidates. One has passed the background check. Meekins is investigating the other three by interviewing their neighbors, employers and teachers, investigating with the same tenacity he might use on a criminal suspect.

"We need to know as much about their background as we can know because we're going to have a substantial commitment to them," he said.

Then he acknowledged the likely result: "We're probably going to have to readvertise."

The candidate he chooses will face a vision test, psychological tests, and a lie detector test. If the potential recruit is not already an officer, he or she will have to pass a six-month police academy course in Baltimore or Howard or Baltimore counties. During the course, the town pays the recruit's salary plus about $3,000 for the training.

Then Meekins has to hope the recruit won't change his or her mind about police work, or accept a job for more money from another police department.

Until recent years, Carroll County towns could count on attracting middle-age veterans from Baltimore and Baltimore County. Those officers took post-retirement jobs in the small towns to supplement their pensions, and arrived with experience.

Those officers now have more choices, many of which pay more and present fewer everyday dangers -- bank security work, credit card investigations, investigating for lawyers or insurance companies. "And everyone wants them," Meekins said.

Still, officers are drawn to the relatively safer working conditions in a small town. In Taneytown, Police Chief Melvin Diggs lost two of his eight officers last year when the Carroll County Sheriff's Department expanded its force. He replaced them with two officers from the Baltimore City Housing Authority. They had to take a small pay cut, Diggs said, but one of the officers lived in the county.

In the 12 years since Diggs has been chief, he has watched 30 officers arrive, then leave for higher-paying jobs.

"I tell them I don't want them to leave, but if any of my people can better themselves, I don't try to hold anyone down," Diggs said.

According to figures from the Maryland Municipal League, about 45 communities have police forces with fewer than 10 officers. Of the 15,000 local and state police officers in the state, about 225 work on these small forces. Their starting pay is $20,000 to $24,000 a year, compared with about $6,000 to $8,000 more for some of the larger jurisdictions.

In Hampstead, Meekins faced the Town Council last week to ask its members to do what they like least: to increase local taxes, to boost police salaries high enough to retain officers. "We're out there bidding against towns and other jurisdictions that are willing to pay more," Meekins told the mayor and council. "I know you like to hold the line on taxes."

The council remained silent.

Often, Meekins has a pool of candidates who have been considered by other jurisdictions that pay more, but who did not get the job for various reasons.

"We kind of sift through those who have been turned down by other jurisdictions and find the diamond in the rough that we can nurture," Meekins said. "Then you hope that no one takes them from you."

He nearly lost Kasten that way. Kasten had applied to the town in 1995 after failing to get a job on the Howard County force. Hampstead hired him, and paid to send him to the Howard County Police Academy, where he rose to the top of the class.

Meekins remembers the Howard County executive admiring this young recruit at the graduation ceremony and saying he would like to hire him.

Meekins told him plainly, "I have him now. You had your chance."

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