They poach officers from nearby police departments. They entice recruits by playing up the drama and heroism of policing through video closeups of flashing lights and holstered guns. They wrestle with how to offer better pay.
But most of all, cognizant of the recent turmoil over officer-involved deaths in Missouri, Baltimore, and elsewhere, America’s police chiefs are looking for compassionate men and women who are in the field to do good.
Take Victor Ransom, whose first assignment as an officer in Jersey City, New Jersey, is bringing him to familiar territory: his own neighborhood. The 34-year-old former Marine is eager to hit the streets and gain the trust of his community.
“I know what they’re saying out there. I can hear them,” said Ransom, one of seven new black officers in New Jersey’s second-largest city. “I want to show them it’s not always one way.”
Police recruiting is entering a new age. Scrutiny and hostility for officers have amplified. Hampered by low pay and threats to generous pension plans, some of the country’s largest police forces saw significant drops in applicants long before chants of “hands up, don’t shoot,” ”I can’t breathe” and “black lives matter” entered the zeitgeist. Attaining and maintaining diversity remains a challenge.
The obstacles police departments face post-Ferguson make some potential officers think, “‘Is that an occupation that I want to do?'” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.
Departments are seeing a mix of failure and success in attracting applicants.
- New York, which offers its written exam six days a week, saw the number of police applicants fall from about 28,000 in 2008 to 12,000 in 2014. It’s now working on a project to re-engage black applicants and plans to add nearly 1,300 officer positions, including about 1,000 working on a new community policing initiative.
- Los Angeles saw the number of people filling out a preliminary application fall from about 33,000 in 2011 to 26,546 in 2014. Its recruiting website promotes a recent pay raise for officers.
- Las Vegas has seen an uptick in recruiting, Lt. Chris Little said, because his department, the largest in Nevada, is seen as more progressive and technologically advanced than others in the state.
- Phoenix, which stopped recruiting for five years because of budget cuts, resumed its written exam last year and garnered close to 1,000 applicants in five sessions with minimal recruiting effort. It also poached 15 officers from other departments and has added 19 officers this year, including some taking the written exam, Sgt. Trent Crump said.
- Departments in Texas are plucking officers from other forces with promises of higher pay and better benefits. Eight of the 10 officers hired in Fort Worth this spring came from Dallas. Dallas, in turn, is trying to lure officers from Memphis, Tennessee.
- Some departments, like in Denison, Texas, show recruits flashy videos that stress the exciting side of police work.
- San Jose, California, has struggled to replace more than 400 officers who left as pay and pensions fell over the past decade. With better-funded neighbors luring away talent, the department’s recruiting classes have shrunk from about 60 people to just 16 in the latest group.
- In Pennsylvania, which has long been mired in a pension funding crisis, a union warns of the potential exodus of 1,000 state troopers if they are included in a plan to trim state and local police benefits and eliminate guaranteed pensions for new hires.
Higher standards meant to attract better- and broader-educated candidates have sometimes turned away applicants, Wexler said.
Nearly one in four police officers work for a department that requires entry-level officers to have at least a two-year college degree or military service, according to Justice Department statistics. Among them: New York since 1996 and Philadelphia since 2013.
“At the very moment you’re trying to increase the requirements for police officers. You’re working to limit your base of who can become police officers,” Wexler said.
Police agencies that used to swing open their doors to a flood of applicants are turning to social media and slick online presentations like the Justice Department-backed Discoverpolicing.org to generate interest in a generation more apt to find excitement in technology-driven jobs than police work.
Recruiters are showing up at churches and job fairs, even military bases. They’re engaging community groups and buying up computer tablets so potential officers can sign up on the spot.
A White House task force on modern policing has called on the federal government to facilitate diversity through assessments and a carrot-and-stick approach tying federal funding to how well a department improves.
Equally important, said task force Co-Chairman Charles Ramsey, is how officers treat people.
“We have to really work on making sure our officers have positive interactions with people, treat people in a respectful manner and work hard at providing quality service,” said Ramsey, the commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department.
Nationally, the percentage of black officers remained around 12 percent from 2007 to 2013—up from about 9 percent in 1987, but still shy of mirroring the country’s 13.2 percent black population, according to a recent Justice Department report.
The New York Police Department is embarking on a project to re-engage black applicants disenchanted by what can be a three- to four-year lag between taking the police exam and being hired.
If successful, the NYPD will have its highest proportion of black cadets—about 14 percent—in eight years and could see even greater interest by next summer with a program to cut the time from testing to hiring to a year, said Deputy Police Commissioner Michael Julian.
“The traditional message around the country is action, benefits and opportunities. They’ll show you the helicopters, the horses and the dogs,” Julian said. “We want compassionate people. People with empathy. People who understand service.”