Tenn. police force turns to local candidates to fill shortages

By Lauren Gregory
The Chattanooga Times Free Press

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. Chattanooga police officials, faced with similar recruiting challenges confronting law enforcement agencies across the country, will focus on hiring local candidates to shore up a shortage of sworn officers.

"Usually, when we hire people locally, we don't worry as much about them leaving as we do with people who come from outside," Police Chief Freeman Cooper said. "We're interested in finding people who want to come to work here and stay here until retirement."

The new approach is aimed at filling 40 current department vacancies and ultimately boosting the number of sworn officers from 471 to 500, Assistant Chief Mike Williams said.

The department launched three training academies in 2007 the most officials can recall ever running in a year's time and yet has only one less opening for patrol officers than a year ago.

"Departments are having a hard time recruiting and retaining officers from California to New York. ... Private industries will pay three, four, five times as much, and the ones who don't go to private industries will go to federal jobs," he said.

Officials hope that their new recruiting strategy will help them identify local residents who can make it through a monthslong hiring process, 20-week academy and 16 weeks of field training.

Only one out of 10 applicants makes it through that process, according to recruiting unit supervisor Sgt. Tonya Ransom.

In a departmentwide e-mail, Chief Cooper asked every officer to assist in recruiting efforts a first for the department. As of Friday, he said he had received 10 recommendations.

Sgt. C.W. Joel, president of the Southeast Tennessee Chapter of the Police Benevolent Association, said officers often know who will make good candidates.

"You can do all the background checks, all the credit checks and all the reference checks in the world, but nothing beats a screening process of firsthand knowledge of someone," Sgt. Joel said. "You get to see your work ethic and their habits something you can't get in a written application."

Character can become far more important than credentials in an applicant, Sgt. Joel said.

An officer who can speak "five languages doesn't make me feel safer in a gunfight," he said.

Nonetheless, Sgt. Ransom said, department officials plan to maintain strict standards in potential applicants.

Cleveland, Tenn., resident Jonathan Parker, one of 19 cadets in the department's training academy that began Oct. 19, said commitment to rigorous hiring standards will pay off in the long run.

"I think there are probably a number of people who aren't able to or don't want to meet the certain standards," Mr. Parker, 27, said. "I appreciate the fact that the administration isn't going to lower the standards just to get people on the street."

The department will continue to advertise online to attract both lateral applicants those with previous law enforcement experience and new officers from other areas of the country, Sgt. Ransom said.

However, local candidates will have an advantage because they can attend physical training and test preparation courses conducted daily at the police department's training center on Amnicola Highway.

The department also plans to begin cultivating interest in this type of career track early, said Officer Venus Mathews, who had been a school resource officer at Tyner Academy before recently being placed in the recruiting unit to talk to local high school students about their future possibilities.

"It may be five years before they're eligible to apply, but we can plant that seed so they know what's available to them," Chief Williams explained.

Copyright 2007 Chattanooga Times Free Press

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