07/02/2007

Dwindling number of Penn. police applicants

By David O'Conner
Lancaster New Era

LANCASTER, Penn. Even as recently as the late 1990s, John Yost says, well over 100 people would apply to be a police officer in his town, New Holland, whenever there was a job opening.

But when his police department had a vacancy recently, it handed out 60 applications and had about 50 people take the required test, a "pretty low" number, says Yost, the borough's police chief.

In Warwick Township, Chief Rich Garipoli has to contend with businesses for the "cream of the crop" just out of school.

"These kids are coming out of college today, and they're getting more and more into the information technology end of it," he says.

"These private corporations can pay a lot more than public safety can."

He knows what he's talking about Garipoli has been in police work for more than 30 years and has been Warwick's police chief since 2001, but his own 27-year-old son Christopher makes more working for Nextel/Sprint.

All across Lancaster County, police chiefs like these are facing the same dilemma: They like the new police officers they're getting, they just wish they had a bigger pool of candidates to choose from.

Veteran police officials like Garipoli and Mark Pugliese, West Hempfield Township's chief, estimate they're seeing less than half the number of applicants they would have had 20 years ago.

"If you don't have the 'bug' to go out and do this type of work," Pugliese says, "then the job maybe isn't that appealing, as far as things like the shift work," in addition to the pressures and the dangers of being a police officer.

"Maybe there's a little bit of a difference in attitude right now, and I'm not saying that the young guys aren't in it for the right reasons," he says.

"But there was a point in time a generation ago, 20 years ago that it didn't matter what they paid, because 'I want to be a police officer' was the attitude."

Adds Garipoli, who's president of the 40-active-member county police chiefs' association, "You have to have that want to do it."

The applicants today are excellent, he says, and "we search for candidates with excellent character traits. ... We feel we're getting the cream of the crop.''

Still, he says, "I wish the pool was bigger.

"I've been doing this 31 years, and you are seeing a difference. We are fighting the private corporations for these young, sharp kids coming out of college, and it is tough."

He worked for Muhlenberg Township in Berks County before coming here and says he often would see 150 applications for one or two positions.

Now, his department might see 30 applicants or less when there's just one opening.

With this in mind, area police chiefs are considering a plan to create a "pool" of new applicants.

The pool would be shared by participating municipalities in the county, and police hopefuls would submit their applications to the group instead of one municipality.

The idea is in place in several nearby counties, including Dauphin and York.

Generally, Garipoli explains, outside agencies administer the tests for applicants in the individual municipalities, and an officer has to be present to serve as a "proctor."

Garipoli says the area chiefs hope to have a draft of the plan ready in the near future. Each municipality's participation would have to be approved by the leaders in that area.

Garipoli says the system could well be a big help to police, "and financially, it would be great on the municipalities, too."

The police chiefs say they not only have to battle the private sector for applicants today, but also a requirement that police created themselves.

Some 80 percent of Pennsylvania municipalities require new police officers to complete state police academy training - which is held twice a year, in January and July - before they can put on the badge.

While that ensures a higher level of know-how and professionalism when the new police begin, it also means a young person interested in being an officer might be tempted to work somewhere else rather deal with the wait.

One area chief calls it perhaps "a monster that we created. ... In doing that, it cut down on applications."

New Holland's Yost says, "It's kind of tough; when you need somebody and you hire them, you can't use them for six or seven months."

The process takes time, the police officials agree.

Another area police chief, East Hempfield Township's Douglas Bagnoli, says it can take 18 months from the time he sees the need for a new officer until one is finally hired, goes through the training and then actually starts.

"So although you might find some good people to hire, you might lose them, because you're waiting on this window and they're going to take a job somewhere else," says Bagnoli, the township's chief for 17 years.

Chief John Bowman of East Lampeter Township says it's harder, too, for smaller communities to put together a package, like state police do, to showcase the advantages of a career in law enforcement.

Copyright 2007 Lancaster Newspapers, Inc.

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