Wanted: Police recruits in South Florida

By Diana Moskovitz
The Miami Herald 

SOUTH FLORIDA Police work has its perks: You don't have to sit at a desk all day. It's more exciting than most jobs. Some employers give you a car to take home. And after about 20 years, you can retire on as much as 80 percent of your working pay.

That's the pitch, anyway. The trouble is, in South Florida and across the country, too few people are buying. Police agencies of all sizes are having a hard time keeping their ranks filled.

So they're getting creative.

In Fort Lauderdale, recruiters are traveling to New York in hopes of grabbing cops from a top criminal justice college, and to military bases to pursue people leaving the armed services.

In Hallandale Beach, police have started a partnership with the local high school in hopes of getting young people interested early.

And in Miami-Dade County, police have sponsored radio ads and a recruitment Web page.

These innovative recruiting techniques are all aimed at the same problem: filling vacant police jobs.

There is no single reason why police agencies are having trouble recruiting. But law enforcement observers will point out several themes: Baby boomers are retiring. More law enforcement jobs exist than ever. Recruits must meet stricter standards. And many young people today have a negative image of police work.

'For years, law enforcement has taken a bad rap for a lot of different reasons, some may be deserving and some not. People go, 'Why would I want to subject myself and my family to that kind of stuff ... for that kind of pay?' " said John Rivera, president of both the Miami-Dade and statewide Police Benevolent Association. "Why, when I can go work for a bank or somewhere else and not have nearly the headaches, the stress and the dangers."

In the world of law enforcement jobs, candidates have more choices than ever.

The country added more than a million law-enforcement jobs an 86 percent jump from 1982 to 2003, according to federal statistics. Add to that growth in private companies ranging from local security firms to antiterrorism consultants.

In Miami-Dade, more cities started their own police departments, creating more competition for candidates. And the region's housing prices soared, driving away potential hires who couldn't afford a home.


At the same time, more is demanded of those wanting to become a cop. About 40 years ago, academy training took about 200 hours and there were no state-mandated tests, said Edward Mandt, who took the helm of Broward's police academy in mid-1980s.

Today's students must pass a state test, then complete 770 hours at the academy, then pass another state test. And that doesn't include the testing and background checks police departments do before sending people to the academy. "A very large percentage of people can't pass the background check," said University of Florida criminology professor Frank Shenkman said.

The latest generation of workers has a far more negative image of the job, including how much it cuts into their personal lives, how much scrutiny officers face and how little respect they receive compared with other public employees, such as firefighters.

"I think young people today have choices, and they understand police departments take a part of your personhood," said Eugene O'Donnell, a lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "It's just not a fun place to work."

The shortage of qualified applicants has forced departments to look for alternative ways to recruit.


One option has become programs geared toward reaching out to returning Iraq War veterans.

In Fort Lauderdale, recruiters have gone from distant like Detroit and New York's John Jay to nearby seminars at the city's museum of African-American culture, said Sgt. Charlie Studders, recruitment unit supervisor for Fort Lauderdale police.

"Wherever we have the chance of finding civic-minded people, we don't mind sending a recruitment team to it," Studders said.

In Miami Beach, police put up at least one electronic sign along a city road in South Beach last weekend to advertise the department's website, where people can apply to become a cop.

Spokesman Sgt. Bobby Hernandez said the agency hasn't had as much recruiting trouble as other cities. But the agency still wants to push for as many applications as possible. "The more we have, the pickier we can be," Hernandez said. "When you don't have that many applicants, you can't be that choosy."


Smaller departments, like Hallandale Beach, get even more creative.

The southeast Broward city has asked retired cops to come back and work with rookies.

The department also is "trying to grow our own," Chief Thomas Magill said.

At Hallandale High School, a program taught by police officers and community service aides shows students the ins and outs of police work, from how officers talk to processing a crime scene.

When students complete the classes, called "criminal justice operations," they can become certified community service aides, although they would need to go through a city hiring process.

On Sept. 20, students in one class had a quiz rolling one another's fingerprints on identification cards. Their grades were based on how clear and complete the prints came out, and on filling out the form correctly.

Sophomore Fernando Walker, 16, didn't take the class to become a police officer, but said he was starting to change his mind.

"The class," he said, "made me want to be one."

Copyright 2007 Miami Herald

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