By FRANK ELTMAN
The Associated Press
EAST ISLIP, New York — The exam is not until Saturday, but 29,300 people apparently have already done the math.
With a starting salary more than double that of the nearby New York Police Department - and potential patrols on sandy beaches or quiet suburban streets - tens of thousands of potential recruits have plunked down a $100 (euro74) entrance fee to take the Suffolk County Police Department entrance exam.
It is believed to be one of the largest numbers of applicants to ever sign up for a police test in the United States.
"We're very excited that we're bucking the national trend of police departments having recruiting problems," said Lt. Robert Donohue, who is in charge of Suffolk County's recruiting effort. "We have an overwhelming number; we have the pick of the litter."
A big reason for the droves of potential recruits is the salary. Suffolk County, on Long Island east of New York City, pays newcomers to the police department $57,811, (euro42,918) and that figure climbs to a top salary of $94,417. (euro70,094) And that does not include the overtime that often pushes officers' annual salaries well above six figures.
The numbers easily dwarf the salaries of the officers who patrol the streets of New York City. New hires at the NYPD start at $25,100, (euro18,634) then receive $32,700 (euro24,276) after six months and $34,000 (euro25,241) after 18 months.
With enough people to fill the Nassau Coliseum twice over, Suffolk officials are conducting their test Saturday at nearly 50 schools across eastern Long Island.
Those who score best on the exam, which tests applicants on "general knowledge of all areas of life," according to Donohue, will be eligible for the expected 100 openings a year over the next four years on the 2,700-member police force.
Donohue did not have statistics on the largest number of applicants ever to take the test, but believes the 29,300 represents a record for departments in the region, perhaps the country. Applicants must pay the $100 (euro74.24) fee, be between 18 and 34 and be a high school graduate or have an equivalency diploma.
Michael White, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the strong interest "is a little surprising. For the last several years police departments in major metropolitan areas have been understaffed."
In New York City, for example, 700 to 800 officers will be hired out of the next Police Academy class - far short of the department's goal of 3,000 officers. Until 2005, the starting pay for new NYPD officers was about $36,000, (euro26,726) but that was slashed as part of an arbitrator's decision.
Chief of Personnel Rafael Pineiro told a New York City Council hearing this week that the NYPD believes "the difficulty in attracting a significant number of qualified candidates ... is due primarily to the low starting salary while recruits are undergoing their initial training in the Police Academy."
The pay is so high in Suffolk County largely because of arbitration rulings in the past several decades in favor of the county's police unions.
Donohue said approximately 30 percent of the officers who are eventually hired have experience working in neighboring police departments, particularly the NYPD. Though Suffolk County has its share of crime, with a growing gang problem and other issues, working conditions are generally considered better than for an officer in New York City.
"It's not just about the money," Donohue said. "They are able to reduce their commutes and Suffolk County has a terrific reputation as a great place to live."
William Murphy, 33, of Riverhead, used to work as a stock broker on Wall Street, but said he has always dreamed of being a police officer. He signed up to take the test.
"For me, the money is secondary," said Murphy, who is currently an administrator in Suffolk County government. "You can always get a good-paying job, but I've always wanted to be a positive role model for the kids and the community."