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Urban Police Jobs Are Losing Their Appeal


August 02, 2001
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Urban Police Jobs Are Losing Their Appeal

This is a great article submitted by one of our members from the Times. This is an issue that we all should be concerned about.

By FOX BUTTERFIELD
New York Times


Police departments in cities across the nation are facing what some call a personnel crisis, with the number of recruits at record lows, an increasing number of experienced officers turning down promotions to sergeant or lieutenant and many talented senior officers declining offers to become police chiefs, executive recruiters and police officials say.

Making the situation worse, in some cities a growing number of police officers are quitting for higher-paying jobs in suburban departments or private businesses.

These problems have come at a time when crime is at its lowest levels since the late 1960's and the police should be feeling good about themselves. But, the experts say, many officers from the lowest to the highest rank are questioning their occupation, tempted by higher pay in the private sector after a decade- long economic boom and discouraged by seemingly constant public and news media criticism about police brutality and racial profiling.

"I would absolutely not take a job as a police chief," said John Diaz, an assistant police chief in Seattle, who at 44 already has a good national reputation and is sought after by recruiters for a chief's post.

"The politics of being police chief have become so insane no one wants the job," said Mr. Diaz, who is particularly attractive to recruiters because he is Hispanic. "I work an 11- hour day, but our chief is here before me every day and doesn't leave until I'm gone, and all he gets is attacked in the media all the time."

The malaise felt by those from potential police recruits to chiefs "is a major crisis all over the country," said Cynthia Brown, the publisher of American Police Beat, the largest- circulation newspaper for law enforcement officers.

The difficulties are illustrated in her publication. Until a year ago, Ms. Brown said, she had never run an advertisement from a police department looking for recruits, because police forces could still find all the applicants they needed in their own communities. But in the current issue, there are advertisements for police recruits from a dozen cities, including Portland, Ore., and Seattle, and smaller cities like Santa Cruz, Calif., and Sheridan, Wyo.

There has been little public attention to the police departments' troubles, but Jeremy Travis, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and a former deputy police commissioner in New York City, said, "If this was a business, we'd be in a panic mode."

There are no nationwide statistics on the problem. But figures from several cities show the magnitude of the drop in applicants for the police examination, the first step in becoming a police officer. In Chicago last year, 5,263 people signed up for the exam, despite months of recruiting at college campuses, military bases and churches throughout the Midwest, said Cmdr. Bill Powers, the head of the Chicago police personnel division. That is down from 10,290 people who signed up in 1997 and 36,211 applicants in 1991. Traditionally, only a tiny fraction of people who apply are eventually accepted, making a large applicant pool important.

In New York City, more than 1,700 officers left the 41,000-member force last year through retirement or resignation, a third more than the year before. The retirement rate is expected to accelerate, with concerns about morale and pay taking their toll and with a large portion of the force soon to complete 20 years of service, when officers can retire with a full pension.

The number of captains leaving the New York Police Department tripled in the 2000 fiscal year from the year before, and over the next four years, more than half of the force's 2,100 captains and lieutenants will be eligible to retire.

While the number of people signing up to take the test to become New York City police officers rose modestly this year over last year, the overall number of applicants has dropped sharply in recent years. In 1996, 32,000 people signed up. This year, 13,136 did.

In Los Angeles, where the police have been buffeted by scandals since the Rodney King beating in 1991, there were only 19 recruits in the police academy class in June, a record low, said Amira Smith, an officer in the employment opportunity development division. When Ms. Smith joined the force four years ago, there were 70 recruits in her class, and not long before that there were 100 recruits per class. This month Los Angeles canceled the police academy because there were not enough recruits.

In Seattle, the police department is having trouble finding officers to take the sergeants' examination, and sergeants to take the exam for promotion to lieutenant. Only 86 officers took this year's sergeants' test, down from 134 in 1997, and only 10 sergeants took this year's exam for lieutenant, compared with 33 in 1997, department figures show.

Many officers with seniority do not want to start over in a higher rank, risking having to work nights or weekends, officers say. And some sergeants do not want the promotion because lieutenants, unlike sergeants, do not get overtime pay.

"There has been a big change in the culture of policing in the past few years, as lifestyle becomes more important than the sense of public service," said Carroll Buracker, the head of a management and consulting firm in Harrisonburg, Va., and a former police chief in Fairfax County, Va. Detectives in many police departments now work only from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, Mr. Buracker said, and therefore are unavailable to contact a victim when a crime occurs in the evening or over the weekend.

"So why would a detective want to give up that work schedule when they have a family," he asked, "in order to be a sergeant without seniority and face working nights and weekends?"

To attract and retain officers, some police departments are resorting to even more radical changes in the work week that Mr. Buracker, among others, thinks undermine the goals of good policing. In Tacoma, Wash., all police officers work on Thursday, he said, so officers on a rotating basis can get six days off in a row, from Friday through Wednesday. The new mayor of Los Angeles, James K. Hahn, won the endorsement of the city's police union by promising to institute a three-day work week, with 12-hour shifts.

But if officers work only three days a week, Mr. Buracker said, they would often not be available to go to court, an essential duty in everything from settling traffic tickets to felony trials. And they might start making fewer arrests to avoid having to show up to testify, he said.




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