Struggling to fill deputy posts

Sheriff's Office hopes lowering age for corrections officers attracts more applicants

March 12, 2006|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

With more than 500 applications for 16 openings, Capt. Chris Swain should have been thrilled.

But as Swain evaluated the prospective candidates for deputy positions with the Harford County Sheriff's Office, it became clear that this was no bumper crop. Nearly 120 failed an admissions test; 160 hadn't shown up to take it. An additional 150 would not qualify because of past drug use or criminal or Motor Vehicle Administration issues.

Heading into its Training Academy this month - where one-third of recruits typically quit during the first week - the department had identified 12 candidates for the 16 deputy positions.

That's a serious disadvantage for an agency that aspires to have 10 potential hires for every opening, officials said. But department officials are hoping that a recruiting push in county high schools, spurred by the lowering of the minimum age for corrections officers from 21 to 18, may help identify potential recruits at a younger age.

Though the minimum age for sheriff's deputies is 21, younger corrections officers can get in the system and be better primed for deputy positions.

"We get people who can't work for us, because they've got 15 points on their license, and they wonder why they can't be a deputy," said Sheriff R. Thomas Golding. "If we can catch these kids at that [younger] age, there'll be less chance of them doing something they'll regret."

Added Swain, who made the transition from corrections to the sheriff's department: "We're trying to plant in their mind that these things are going to matter if you're going to be a law enforcement officer."

In 2001, the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commission, a group that sets standards for police and corrections agencies, reduced the minimum age for corrections officers from 21 to 18. According to meeting minutes, then-Cecil County Sheriff Rodney Kennedy pleaded for the change while describing his staffing struggles, and other leaders chimed in with similar frustrations.

The change reflects a broader trend of recruiting difficulties that had the commission debating last year whether to alter the rules on prior drug use to attract more applicants to short-staffed departments. The proposal was criticized by some for lowering standards to fill positions.

Last month, the sheriff's department was one of dozens of organizations that set up a table in the cafeteria of C. Milton Wright High School for a career fair, handing out fliers and business cards and chatting with students.

A look around the room suggested how competitive recruiting has become: military, fire, police and other public service jobs represented a sizable chunk of the fair.

But the sheriff's department had a secret weapon: 20-year-old Paul Cole, who became a corrections officer at 18 after graduating from Harford Christian School. Flanking him was another fresh-faced officer - 21-year-old Kara Angelo, a C. Milton Wright graduate. A few girls who passed by the table said their older sisters had been friends with her.

Reducing the minimum age for corrections officers did not come without concerns. A task force report found that wardens from across Maryland wondered about the maturity level of 18-year-olds, and meeting minutes indicate there was a desire to form a cadet program.

But the age-reduction measure passed unanimously, though the commission's executive assistant director, Ray Franklin, said it does not require agencies to hire younger officers. The minimum age for police officers in Maryland remains 21.

Most states don't hire corrections officers at 18, but former Virginia prison system Director Ron Angelone said corrections is nonetheless a good place for police to search for recruits.

"At 18, people are looking to go to college and make career choices in their life," said Angelone, now a private consultant. "It looks exciting being a road deputy sheriff rather than being inside a jail, but it will give them the motivation to look at becoming a sworn deputy. It gets them exposed to the system."

To combat staffing troubles, Golding said some agencies have recruited officers using minimum standards. That won't happen in Harford County, he said.

"Not on my watch," the sheriff said.

Still, recruiting from the pool of corrections officers can pose problems, Swain said. The department must find new corrections officers every time it pulls one from the Detention Center to become a deputy.

The department sees an array of applicants, from the highly skilled to convicted murderers, Swain said.

"They apply, but [convicts] have absolutely no business applying, and we tell them as much," he said.

Ideally, Swain said, he would like to have 10 to 20 prospective deputies for every one position he's seeking to fill. That would allow them to identify the best of the best, he said.

"Obviously, this group ended being way worse than that," he said of the recent batch of applicants.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

DWINDLING RECRUITS

The Harford County Sheriff's Office had more than 500 candidates for 16 openings, but just 12 prospective deputies entered its Training Academy this month. Here's how that number was whittled down:

Withdrew: 19

Did not qualify, drug use 53

Did not qualify, criminal issues 50

Did not qualify, MVA issues 54

No RSVP for test 95

No-show for test 59

Failed test 118

Did not return application 31

No-show for board 3

Not recommended by board 21

Failed psychological test 2

Failed doctor's physical examination 1

[ Source: Harford County Sheriff's Office]

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