04/27/2006

Aurora, Colo. scrambles to hire cops

Size of force set by mandate, but competition for candidates fierce. It's the toughest hiring market in 25 years, the chief says. The city needs 70 new officers, but fewer people are interested.

Copyright 2006 The Denver Post
All Rights Reserved 

By JEREMY P. MEYER
Denver Post

AURORA, Colo. — It seems Aurora can't hire enough police officers this year to satisfy court-mandated staffing levels, which could result in a union battle later.

The problem, said Police Chief Dan Oates, is that fewer people want to be cops these days.

"This is the most competitive police hiring situation in my 25 years," Oates said.

Oates wants to change what he calls an antiquated hiring process to help the force reach the mandate of two officers for every 1,000 residents, a requirement put in place by voters in 1993.

A consent decree in 2003 forces the city to reach that ratio every year or face "enforcement action" by the police union.

Next year Aurora anticipates needing about 70 new officers to fill vacancies and account for population growth, but only 40 are expected to graduate from the city's police academies.

It's a problem being experienced by police departments across the nation. Candidates today may be offered signing bonuses or help paying their mortgage. Los Angeles gives $1,000 to city employees who find viable candidates, and Denver offers an extra vacation day.

"Families want their kids to be the engineers, the software programmers," said Deputy City Manager Frank Ragan.

Being a police officer is "a tough profession, an unforgiving profession," he said. "You have a potential for 24/7 shifts, seven days a week, graveyard shifts. … Those are some of the downsides of what historically has been a strong profession."

Competition is particularly fierce in areas with booming growth, said Andrew Morabito, senior project specialist with the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

"A lot of the agencies are struggling," he said. "They have full-blown marketing schemes … websites for online recruiting, posters, local radio ads and signing bonuses."

Both Denver and Aurora are in an all-out push to add cops. Denver wants 156 new officers this year, said recruiter Detective Michael Lemmons.

Aurora's two-per-1,000 program is funded through a 0.25 percent sales tax. Council members have thought about asking voters to scale back the ratio, but the question has never reached the ballot. Last year, voters rejected a property tax hike that would have paid for public safety costs.

Next weekend, the council meets for its annual spring workshop and will focus on budget woes. A recent study said the city will be $11 million in the red by 2007 and $35 million by 2011.

While the city is having trouble paying for the new cops, a push is still on to hire.

Aurora is sending recruiters around the nation, including to military installations.

Agent Don James, president of the Aurora Police Association, said he's concerned the city won't meet the ratio.

But he said the union may not protest, depending on how the city negotiates next year's contract. The city is required to pay the union's legal fees if the city isn't complying with the decree.

"We will be reasonable and look at the efforts they have or haven't made," James said. "They are doing a much better job now than they have in the past. The question is, have they done enough?"

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