Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Roanoke County Police Department struggles to attract new recruits
Police once had to sift through hundreds of job applications. Now fewer people seem interested and agencies are turning to Facebook, colleges and community leaders to find candidates.
JEANNA DUERSCHERL The Roanoke Times
Roanoke County Criminal Justice Academy recruit Gary Haston (top) trains against Sgt. Dwayne Cromer during a review class in defensive tactics. Haston is one of six recruits training with the Roanoke County Police Department.
Photos by JEANNA DUERSCHERL The Roanoke Times
Roanoke County Criminal Justice Academy recruits Danyell Stout and Anthony Gennosa practice defensive tactics Friday. The Roanoke County Police Department is having a hard time finding recruits, which is a drastic change from previous years.
Roanoke County Criminal Justice Academy recruit Jake Bostic works to handcuff Officer Spencer Lewis as the other five recruits watch during a defensive tactics review class. The six recruits are survivors of 14 original candidates.
Correction (May 17, 2011: 10:25 a.m.): The Roanoke County Police Department is not reformatting its recruit tests. A subheadline in previous versions of this story was incorrect. The story has been updated. | Our corrections policy
Finding recruits for the Roanoke County Police Department was once as easy as putting an ad in the newspaper.
"Three hundred people would show up on test day," said Lt. David McMillan, the county police recruiter.
After the recession began at the end of 2007, Roanoke County and other police agencies were swamped with applicants who'd been fired from other jobs.
Now, that's mostly history, despite the Roanoke region's 7.5 percent unemployment rate.
"There's not enough people who want to do police work" and can pass rigorous background checks, psychological tests and physical fitness tests, McMillan said.
The county's current police academy class withered from 14 to six cadets as they waited for training to begin, got sick, flunked out or found other work. Even after those half-dozen trainees are sworn as officers and put to work in late summer, the county will have at least two police vacancies, plus whatever other openings are created by normal turnover.
Other local police agencies aren't having the problem. Those who qualify as Roanoke County officers also are sought by state and federal agencies or larger police departments that can offer more than Roanoke County's $33,111 starting salary, McMillan said. Virginia State Police has 281 openings for uniformed personnel, the result of four years of budget cuts that have restricted the flow of new troopers from training academies.
The competition, at a time of tight budgets, has Roanoke County and other police organizations rethinking how to hire.
The county is turning to the Facebook social media website and to job fairs at colleges that offer criminal justice degrees.
Roanoke city police have assigned a young, charismatic police officer as recruiter. He will forge friendships at local colleges, represent the department at job fairs and train fellow officers to be on the lookout for likely recruits. City police also are asking leaders in minority communities to help identify potential candidates, said Roanoke police Lt. Rick Morrison, director of the city police academy.
The U.S. Justice Department and the trade group International Association of Chiefs of Police are jointly pitching police work as a career with a website, discoverpolicing.org, that emphasizes public service.
"It's a tough business to get new recruits," Morrison said. "We all need good people."
Today's strategies are simple, "but it's going against traditional recruiting," Morrison said.
The old way was to throw out a net and sort through hundreds of unqualified applicants. The new way is to target prospective applicants and woo them. Morrison said he believes this selective approach will yield more qualified candidates.
Getting people interested in the job sometimes means correcting stereotypes and putting an emphasis on public service, said Officer Nicholas Comas, Roanoke's new recruiter.
"There are a lot of people that just don't understand what police officers do," Comas said.
Comas would like to create short videos about policing in Roanoke, and said he plans to take patrol officers to job fairs so they can talk to potential candidates.
"We believe a big problem is that many people just don't understand the nature of policing," said Kim Kohlhepp, manager of the center for testing and career development at International Association of Chiefs of Police.
"It's not like it's represented on TV," he said. "It's a service occupation."
Another recruiting problem is the lengthy hiring process.
Hiring involves interviews, background checks, psychological tests, polygraphs and physical fitness tests. It can take months, and many potential hires lose patience or are offered jobs elsewhere.
Roanoke County lost four of 14 potential candidates for its police academy class that began in March for those reasons, McMillan said. Four others dropped out because they didn't pass tests or became sick, leaving the academy with just six cadets.
Roanoke police said they've remedied the long hiring process.
The city makes conditional job offers, so that new hires can quickly be put to work in civilian jobs months before a police academy class begins.
Police agencies are also rethinking how to reach younger generations.
"That rough and tough patriot -- we're slowly falling away from that," Comas said.
Comas sells Roanoke's new $7.2 million academy building in northwest Roanoke, its equipment, its people, and a chance to work at a busy police department.
At Roanoke County, McMillan said he worries that the appeal of policing has been lost on today's younger generation.
"I think the new generation needs to be invited," McMillan said.
Danyell Stout, 26, saw Roanoke County's advertisement for police openings online from Michigan, where she grew up, and decided to apply.
She's now one of the six recruits in the current police academy class.
"I decided I wanted to help people," Stout said. "I wanted to be a pillar and a role model for anyone else who wanted to do this."