Hiring now

April 03, 2006

From Los Angeles to Pikesville, police departments are struggling to fill vacancies. Many police chiefs can't replenish their ranks fast enough, leaving departments undermanned and overtime budgets overwhelmed. Signing bonuses, housing assistance and tuition aid are being offered to recruit and retain officers, which makes sense if police chiefs want to ensure they have a diversified, skilled and professional force.

But not every city can afford incentives. Other factors, such as affordable housing or the quality of local schools, may be more of a consideration for an applicant - and tougher to deliver.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley has made public safety a priority of his administration and raised police salaries to reflect that. The agency also offers a $5,000 bonus to police officers who transfer from another department. But the city force hasn't been fully staffed since 2002 and now is down 144 officers. Last year, it spent $16.5 million in overtime to cover shortfalls.

The Maryland State Police, with 46 vacancies in its trooper ranks, doesn't offer recruitment perks. Instead, its superintendent, Col. Thomas E. "Tim" Hutchins, has put a priority on personal recruiting, designating a trooper in each of the 23 barracks to help in the effort and establishing a mentoring program - a proven retention tool, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Colonel Hutchins also has increased the number of academy classes to try to keep pace with the loss of 10 troopers a month to retirement.

Many of Baltimore's vacancies resulted from the department's decision to forcibly retire injured and disabled officers who had been working light duty. While police now have the chance to increase their presence on the street, Baltimore is competing for the same cadets as less-crime-ridden suburban areas. And while the city can attract applicants, many wash out because of tough, but necessary, state standards on prior drug use.

Both the Maryland State Police and the city force should promote their 20-years-and-out retirement options that enable officers to pursue second careers. Baltimore County has a cadre of retired city detectives on its force.

Education benefits are another recruiting tool. The state police's affiliation with Frederick Community College is an innovative program that allows police cadets to earn college credits while in training at the academy. Reinstituting a tuition benefit for all troopers may help more earn college degrees.

Policing is a demanding and often dangerous job. But it is essential to safeguarding our communities and improving our quality of life - and now it requires more than a few good men and women.

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