Advertising for more officers

Facing shortages, police departments offer bonuses to entice recruits


SEATTLE -- Among the depleted ranks of police departments throughout the country, it has come to this: desperate want ads offering signing bonuses to new recruits, and cops paying other cops to find new cops.

It seems nobody wants to be a police officer anymore, officials say. But rather than lower standards, departments are taking a page from recruiters in sports and the corporate world. Here in King County, the most populous in the Pacific Northwest, the Sheriff's Office is trying a kind of bounty hunting: Any deputy who can bring in someone who eventually becomes an officer will get a bonus of 40 hours of extra vacation time, worth up to $1,300. "This job used to be more enticing, and we didn't have to do a lot of marketing," said Sheriff's Deputy Jessica Cline, the chief recruiter for the King County force. "Over time, it's become less attractive. We needed to do something."

But it is a competitive world out there among police recruiters. San Diego County, for instance, has already gone King County one better. "Put a star in your future - now offering a signing bonus of up to $5,000," goes the Web advertisement for the San Diego County Sheriff's Department.

In a generation's time, the job of an American police officer, previously among the most sought-after by people with little college background, has become one that in many communities now goes begging. Experts find that the life has little appeal among young people, and those who might be attracted by it are frequently lured by aggressive counteroffers from the military. The problem is compounded by better pay at entry-level jobs in the private sector, where employment opportunities have recently brightened.

The resulting shortage of new officers, says Elaine Deck, who tracks recruitment matters for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, is the top concern facing law enforcement across the country. Nearly every police department at a recent statewide meeting in California reported being at least 10 percent short of the officers it needed. The Los Angeles Police Department has about 700 officers fewer than its full complement of 10,000, says Cmdr. Kenny Garner, who oversees recruiting there.

"When I started out in the 1970s, there were lines around the block of people waiting to take the police test, and I had to sleep overnight in an elementary school to get my place," Garner said. "It's not an easy sell anymore."

Similarly, the test to join King County's ranks now draws only a small fraction of the 3,000 who used to take it.

In the face of developments like those, police agencies have tried a variety of enticements.

"Walk-ins accepted for immediate testing!" says an advertisement from the Los Angeles police, which at one point sent recruiters to Florida to troll for prospective officers among college students lying on the beach during spring break.

There, Fort Lauderdale's come-on for police academy prospects says "no maximum age," along with "up to five weeks' vacation."

The New York City Police Department recently placed advertisements in newspapers in and around Buffalo, part of a broad sweep to find recruits in the economically depressed upstate region.

The Baltimore Police Department met its recruiting goals this year, spokesman Matt Jablow said, but it plans to step up its promotional efforts next year when it seeks to accept 240 cadets into the city's police academy, up from 170 this year.

Many cities have raised salaries well above the rate of inflation and are offering benefits like discount mortgages. Lexington, Ky., will give new officers up to $7,400 for a down payment on a home.

The Los Angeles police are offering $500 to any city employee who can bring in a police recruit who makes it through the academy and another $500 if the prospect becomes a sworn officer. But the bonus, along with recruit inducements that include a retirement payment of $250,000 after 20 years in addition to a pension, has yet to turn the tide.

"We're trying to cook up some other things so we can get back in the game," Garner said, in a bow to the competition.

The pay in most departments remains competitive with that in other jobs that do not necessarily require a college degree. A rookie officer in Los Angeles, for example, will start at $51,000 a year - better than the salary of many teachers. Police jobs also typically come with comfortable vacation, health care and retirement packages.

Further, most height and weight restrictions have been thrown out at major police departments, after lawsuits challenging them on grounds of gender and race. As for strength and stamina, a recruit in King County needs to be able to do only 30 sit-ups in a minute and run a mile and a half in under 14 minutes and 31 seconds.

"You don't have to be Superman," said Sheriff's Deputy Kurt Lange, a 14-year veteran of King County.

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