D.C. police take recruitment drive to the airways
By John McArdle
Politicians aren't the only ones on Capitol Hill who worry about advertising "air wars."
The Capitol Police department currently is in the midst of its semi-annual recruitment blitz, airing radio advertisements on four local stations and print spots in several newspapers and magazines around the country. This year alone, the department is expecting to receive about 3,000 applications.
But staying competitive isn't cheap.
With a starting salary of $49,631 before overtime and bonuses are factored in, the Capitol Police offer one of the highest-paying law enforcement jobs in the country.
Also, the department currently employs four recruiters and has an advertising budget of around $150,000 to $200,000 a year.
Meanwhile, in fiscal 2008, the department brass is asking Congress for $231.7 million to pay for salaries and benefits to 1,681 sworn officers and 444 civilian employees.
By contrast, the department's budget for salaries was $70 million in 1998 and its radio campaign didn't exist five years ago.
Though the mission of the Capitol Police department has certainly changed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the subsequent anthrax attacks on Capitol Hill, Senate appropriators recently questioned the department's new management about the continued growth of its salary requests, which have jumped by $55 million since fiscal 2003.
"I've been told we are one of the highest-paid police forces in the country and that may be what we need," said Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), ranking member of the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, at last month's hearing. Nevertheless both Allard and Chairwoman Mary Landrieu (D-La.) asked newly installed Chief Phillip Morse and Capitol Police Board Chairman Terrance Gainer (a role he fills as Senate Sergeant-at-Arms) to submit to the committee a comparison of department salaries rates and those of other state and federal agencies in the area.
At that hearing, Gainer, who served as chief from 2002 to 2006, explained that salary numbers grew because the department's mission has changed in a much more security sensitive, post-Sept. 11 world.
During Gainer's term as chief, the department added about 400 new officers to its ranks. In fiscal 2008, Morse is looking to add another 10 officers and 30 new civilian staffers.
"The individual salaries have been driven because competition is unbelievably tough in this area between these multiple jurisdictions to get these individuals," Gainer said at the hearing. "We have fared better than most any police agency to get highly qualified people, and I think that goes to the size of the salaries."
Reached last week, Gainer reiterated that "yes, the starting salary is very high, but competition is stiff in the area.
"And competition actually makes the product better," he continued. "I don't think we should be embarrassed or ashamed to say that we are one of the highest-paying departments, the best-trained, and we've got one of the highest missions."
Of the 3,000 candidates who apply each year, only about one in 10 eventually makes it through the recruitment and training process, and the department can usually take its pick of the litter in filling its vacancies.
James Blassingame, the agency's recruitment programs manager and the man who helped designed the radio campaign that began airing last week, said that when looking for potential recruits the department doesn't try to sell its high salary.
"I try to sell [potential recruits] on the benefits of becoming a Capitol Police officer. The honor, the integrity, the intangible benefits not the tangible ones," said Blassingame, who before joining the department was a Marine recruiter.
The agency's biggest competitors for potential recruits include the Supreme Court Police Department, which offers the same starting salary - but with fewer than 200 officers has fewer openings. Most potential recruits also apply to the Secret Service.
In terms of retaining officers, the Capitol Police most often loses personnel to state and local police agencies. Those who leave before retirement age are mostly veteran officers or personnel who joined the department from out of state who decide they want to take jobs closer to home.
However, Blassingame noted that state and local police agencies usually can't compete with the Capitol Police in terms of starting salary, federal retirement plans and job security, not to mention a very generous tuition repayment program for college graduates and those seeking to earn an advanced degree.
Competition has changed over time. In the 12 months following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Blassingame said, the Transportation Security Administration's air marshal program became one of the biggest drains on the department's personnel resources.
In 2002, TSA "didn't put money into training, they put money into hiring," Blassingame said. "So they could hire a guy that was already trained then put them through a two-week course and put them on a plane, as opposed to putting a guy through" the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center program in Georgia, a process that can take six months to a year.
Blassingame noted that in his experience many of the Capitol Police officers who left for the TSA program often want to come back to Capitol Hill "because it's not all it's cracked up to be."
"You're sitting on a plane all day long. They have problems like sinus infections," he added. "Plus they are always on the go; you make good money, but you're always on the go."
According to a September 2006 Washington Times story, the air marshal force had been cut in half by on-the-job injuries and illnesses related to heavy flying schedules, which had sidelined nearly 2,100 marshals.
Blassingame said that for the past several years, the USCP's annual spring recruitment drive increases applicant numbers by about 50 percent for a period of several weeks.
The plan is to start advertising now to target college students who will be looking for a job come graduation and military personnel who are rotating back to the United States from various tours of duty.
Starting last week, the department's four-member recruitment team has placed radio adds on a rock music station (D.C. 101), country station (WMZQ), top 40 station (Hot 99.5) and Spanish radio (Sol 99.1), in an effort to reach out to Washington, D.C., and its suburban areas, which supply 70 percent of the force.
During its last radio campaign in 2006, the department had ads on a local R&B station, WKYS, as well as a hip-hop and go-go station, WPGC.
"We try to rotate it around" in an effort to target various audiences, Blassingame said.
The other 30 percent of the department's officers are usually recruited from across the country, where the main form of advertising is print and recruitment drives at colleges and military bases.
"We travel throughout the country to try to make our department as diverse as the legislature on the Hill," Blassingame said.
Several weeks ago, Blassingame's team was at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and this week they head to Camp Pendleton, Calif. Meanwhile, during the Congressional recess, Blassingame's recruiters visited local schools and bases such as Bowie State University, Andrews Air Force Base and Frostburg State University to hold recruitment drives.
He added that along with commercials, newspaper advertisements and job fairs, many applicants also hear about the program through family and friends already with the department.
"It is a big family affair," Blassingame said.
"Commercials are good" for recruitment campaigns, Gainer said. "But what's going to sink the hook, what's going to turn someone's eye is, 'Is this a place that has a good reputation?' And I believe we now have a good reputation."
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