December 28, 2005
Police Forces, Their Ranks Thin, Offer Bonuses, Bounties and More
By TIMOTHY EGAN
SEATTLE, Dec. 26 - 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. As a
result, 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
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
to it are frequently lured instead 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 among issues 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
"When I started out in the 1970's, 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," Commander Garner said. "It's not an easy
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
"Walk-ins accepted for immediate testing!" says an advertisement from the
Los Angeles police force, 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 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.
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,"
Commander 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
will start at $51,000 a year - certainly better than the starting salary for
many teachers, of whom a degree is demanded. 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 need be able to
do only 30 situps in a minute and run a mile and a half in less than 14
minutes 31 seconds. "You don't have to be Superman," said Sheriff's Deputy
Kurt Lange, a 14-year veteran of King County, where the vacation bonus has
led deputies to start recruiting on their own, looking for friends,
relatives or just casual acquaintances who might want to wear a badge.
But whatever the attractions to the job, a powerful constraint is working
against them, experts say.
"The people we are now trying to recruit look at life and jobs in a very
different way than baby boomers do," said Ms. Deck, of the police chiefs
association. "People used to live to work. This younger generation works to
live. Working late, working weekends, that's not attractive. They want to
make money and retire early."
Then there is the competition from the armed services. At some military
bases, commanders will not even allow police recruiters on the grounds, for
fear that they will steal troops who might otherwise re-enlist, said Lt.
Mike Barletta of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department.
King County has been sending recruiters to distant cities, where they scour
job fairs, employment offices and even other police departments to find new
people to wear the sheriff's uniform.
"We went to Houston, made a presentation after their roll call, spent eight
days in the city, and at the end of it all we got was only one new officer
out of it - and he didn't last," said Detective Robert Burrows, who does
recruitment screening at the King County Sheriff's Office.
What proved to be a bidding war of sorts between King County and San Diego
County broke out this year when the sheriff's office here bought radio
advertisements and sent recruiters south. The selling point was that houses
are cheaper in the Pacific Northwest than in Southern California.
"We sell the lifestyle, and the cost of living, less crime, the mountains,"
said Deputy Cline, the chief recruiter for King County. "And in turn, we're
looking for diversity, for someone with good people skills, someone who can
go from a missing-child call to a bar fight."
San Diego countered by describing the Seattle area as a damp, cold outpost
far from the beaches of Southern California.
"We say, 'Would you rather live in Washington State, where it's gloomy and
gray, or live here with the sunshine and beaches?' " Lieutenant Barletta
said. "Our biggest obstacle is housing prices. Young people can't afford to
buy a home here."
To help with housing costs, San Diego started a Cop Next Door program,
arranging with certain lenders to offer discount home loans to officers
willing to live in less desirable neighborhoods. But the program has yet to
show much promise, Lieutenant Barletta said.
"We've got all the sunshine anyone could want," he said, "but not enough
officers. It's been bad for some time, but it's getting worse."