Police recruiting: Dallas' thinning blue line



In nearly 22 years on the force, Lt. Tammie Hughes has arrested bad guys, investigated problem officers and helped prosecute crooked cops. But the difficulty of those jobs pales to her current job: recruiting new police officers for the Dallas Police Department.

"I didn't realize that it was this hard," said Lt. Hughes, the recruiting unit's commander. "You can see an applicant come through the door, and they look like they have so much promise. Then all of the sudden, we find something in their background. We hired less than 10 percent that applied last year."

The Dallas Police Department isn't alone in struggling to fill openings. Nationwide, major metropolitan police departments, particularly those that hire large numbers of officers each year, face a drought of qualified recruits.

The reasons for the shortage vary, and include low pay, a tight job market, higher private sector pay and competition from the military for the same people.

"We're having a hell of a time," said Sgt. John Urquhart, spokesman for the King County sheriff's office in Seattle. "Police work doesn't have as much as allure as it did 10 years ago. ... Take your pick. Pick your reason."

Dallas' problem is aggravated by flawed hiring practices in the past that have left the department with a tainted reputation, a complicated lawsuit that affects how the city gives raises to firefighters and police officers, and higher pay and better benefits in the suburbs.

The city has nearly 3,000 officers but needs about 600 more to reach the city's goal of having three officers per 1,000 residents. The City Council has authorized about 50 new jobs each year in recent years.

But the revolving door means the department needs to hire about 250 officers per year to replace those who retire or leave and to increase the ranks.

A lack of candidates

The problem is that the department can't find enough qualified candidates to fill academy classes. During the last fiscal year, Dallas police filled only 65 to 70 percent of its academy slots.

"We're hiring the right people, but there's just not enough of them," said Dallas Police Deputy Chief Floyd Simpson, head of the department's recruiting and hiring division.

Adrian Riojas said he barely gave Dallas a second look because the starting pay wasn't high enough and the job didn't offer tuition reimbursement. The Corpus Christi native chose instead to apply to Grand Prairie and Frisco.

"The salary wasn't really worth that commute" to Dallas, said Mr. Riojas, 23, who lives in Arlington and attends the University of North Texas. "I didn't want to be any lower than $40,000."

Taking a look statewide, Dallas' starting pay for recruits - nearly $39,000 - fares well compared with major Texas cities such as Houston, San Antonio, Fort Worth and Austin.

But compared with many area suburbs, Dallas' pay sits on the low end, even with a $1,000 hiring bonus for recruits who graduate from the academy.

Officer Joe Harn, a Garland police spokesman, said money is "very important in today's market. Here in the metroplex each police department is vying for the very same person."

Richardson Police Chief Larry Zacharias said his department needs 11 more officers.

"Like everybody else, we need people," he said. "But you can't lower your standards just to fill your vacancies."

Recruiters say younger people often aren't attracted by good retirement benefits such as those offered for Dallas police and fire personnel.

"I think it's a generational difference," said Lt. Hughes. "It's like a bell goes off about 35," she said.

Austin police Lt. Raul Munguia, supervisor of recruiting, says he's struggling with an initial low pay of $32,000 year for recruits. "We've fallen behind the state average as far as cadet pay goes," Lt. Munguia said.

After they graduate from the police academy, they get a huge raise to $44,570.

Lucrative private sector

Departments often require recruits to have at least some college credit. Plano and Arlington require four-year degrees. But young people can get more money in other professional careers.

Austin "can't compete with Dell or Samsung" in terms of pay, said Lt. Munguia. He said two recent academy classes were only about 65 to 75 percent full.

Police departments are also struggling to navigate a changing society.

Most departments only hire between 5 percent and 10 percent of those who apply, and many get weeded out for prior drug use. Dallas won't take anybody who has tried - even once - harder drugs like cocaine or heroin, although it will take people who have tried marijuana.

"What they're exposed to now I never saw when I was in high school," Lt. Munguia said. "Times have changed."

Tarnished reputation

Dallas can't simply raise starting salaries because of legal complications from a 1979 public referendum that police and firefighters say requires that all sworn personnel get the same percentage raise at all levels in the departments whenever any raise is given.

The city disagrees but has been cautious about how salaries are raised while the issue is settled in court.

The Dallas department has also suffered from its own reputation, notably the 2001 scandal in which fake drugs were planted on innocent people by paid police informants.

Dallas' top brass are also well aware of how flawed practices in the past led to the hiring of officers with questionable character and criminal histories.

Tracy Gaines, 34, said he recently chose the Rockwall Police Department because it's "not in the news a lot with scandal."

E-mail teiserer@dallasnews.com 

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