By David Montgomery
AUSTIN, Texas — A recruiting video from the Fort Worth Police Department features a look-alike of Star Wars’ Chewbacca. Gimmicky? Perhaps. But it’s gotten nearly 3 million views online and the department believes it’s helped recruit as many as 50 officers.
In Florida, the Clearwater Police Department hopes to entice potential job candidates with a video that plays at outdoor concerts, this one pitching the coastal region’s surf, sandy beaches and majestic sunsets.
And in Houston, where law enforcement agencies have been steadily losing officers, Harris County Sheriff’s Office deputies drive vehicles inscribed with an online address — HCSOJOBS.COM — to attract potential recruits.
Police departments across the country are scrambling to fill their ranks. The loss of tens of thousands of officers over the past decade has compromised effectiveness and imposed greater demands on those still on the job, according to police officials and outside experts.
“It makes it much more difficult,” said Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO), a coalition of unions and associations representing 241,000 police officers across the country. “From the public’s point of view, it’s a risk to public safety, because you have fewer officers out there to respond to calls.”
Among the causes of the officer shortage: a rash of retirements by senior officers from the baby boomer generation, better-paying jobs in the private sector, a robust economy with low unemployment rates and, in many cases, grievances over salary and morale.
The ‘Ferguson effect’
There is also the “Ferguson effect,” a reference to the St. Louis suburb that in 2014 exploded in a days-long protest over the shooting of an African-American teenager by a white police officer.
The U.S. Justice Department later determined that the officer in Ferguson had acted in self-defense. But that incident and others involving white officers shooting unarmed African-Americans in other parts of the country have fueled antipathy toward the police, especially in minority communities.
Potential applicants might think twice before plunging into a profession that could subject them to scorn, law enforcement officials say. Police officers now feel they are being perceived as “the new bad guy,” according to a 2016 survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
“When you got into this career in our day and age, it was a very popular profession,” says Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter, who has been a policeman for more than a quarter-century. Now, he says, an undetermined number of potential recruits are being “scared away” by a changed environment.
Then there are the dangers of the job: Being an officer means facing the prospect of death or injury on any given day. On-duty law enforcement deaths totaled 144 in 2018, a 12 percent increase over the previous year, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. In Texas alone, four Houston police officers were shot and wounded in late January. Five Dallas officers were killed in an ambush in 2016.
The number of law enforcement personnel reached a peak of 724,690 in 2013. Police departments lost 23,500 officers over the next three years, according to a 2018 report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Many departing officers counsel friends and family members to find another career path.
“They’re telling their children, ‘don’t be a police officer,’” NAPO’s Johnson said.
Fewer officers means longer response times, heavier caseloads and fewer opportunities to build relations in the community. The shortages also result in more overtime shifts, which gives officers a financial boost but can increase stress, fatigue and burnout.
In a survey of about 400 law enforcement agencies, only 12 percent said they were not short on full-time personnel, according to the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based organization. Over 40 percent reported that their personnel shortages have increased over the past five years.
Michael Bullock, a 28-year-old former state legislative aide who has been on the Austin Police Department for a year, said he carefully weighed what he was getting into before he joined the force.
Because of “all the angst toward law enforcement,” he said, “well-meaning friends sometimes asked, ‘Are you sure that’s what you want to do?’”
“It’s a pretty controversial profession,” Bullock said. “There’s still plenty of people out there that support law enforcement, but the perspective these days is that lots of people don’t like the police.”
Recruiting has become an essential mission as police departments, sheriff’s offices and state agencies appeal for potential candidates through virtually every conceivable venue, from billboards to social media. Recruiting teams from larger departments dispatch representatives across the country for weeks at a time to look for job candidates.
Many police recruiters are focusing on minorities, to more closely match the racial demographics of their communities. They are offering financial incentives to applicants who speak Spanish and recruiting on the campuses of predominantly black and Hispanic universities.
Many also are boosting salaries and benefits, offering signing bonuses, college tuition, take-home vehicles, health club memberships, and, in some cases, student loan forgiveness and child care assistance.
Starting salaries can vary widely, from mid-$30,000 to more than $60,000. Salaries for veteran officers can often exceed $100,000.
The number of racial and ethnic minorities in U.S. police departments nearly doubled over a 26-year period, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, reaching 27 percent of all staff in 2013, up from 15 percent in 1987.
Some police recruiters also are relaxing rules on past drug use, according to a Police Executive Research Forum survey. Tattoos are no longer forbidden at many police departments.
“We don’t want to tell people, ‘Hey, you’re going to have to wear long sleeves all year round in Houston,’” said Joe Gamaldi, president of the Houston Police Officers Union, of his department’s decision more than a year ago to permit tattoos.
To demonstrate its new tattoo-friendliness, the Austin Police Department posted photos of tattooed officers on social media to celebrate National Tattoo Day. Since 2015, the department has increased its recruiting team from 10 to 25.
In Lansing, Michigan, Police Chief Mike Yankowski is using the recruitment of college athletes as a model, personally courting applicants and their families through texts, phone calls and visits. He’s also established a “farm” system that includes younger cadets and police explorers affiliated with the department.
“We’re trying to secure that talent way ahead of the curve,” Yankowski said. “It’s still the most noble profession out there.”
One reliable target for potential recruits is the military, as evidenced by the 20 law enforcement agencies at a January jobs fair at Fort Hood, a large military installation in Central Texas.
Most recruiters were from Texas, but the fair also drew state police agencies from Missouri and Louisiana and a small-town police department from eastern New Mexico.
Hundreds of possible job-seekers, many in military uniform, milled among tables staffed by recruiters and stacked with brochures.
At the Dallas table, Senior Cpl. Dane White, a 51-year-old recruiter, chatted with Army Specialist E-4 Nick Hinojosa, who said he will be leaving the service in about six to 12 months and is thinking of a move into law enforcement, maybe as an undercover officer.
White concedes that policing is “not a real big popular thing like it was 20 years ago” but at the same time, he said, there are still plenty of potential recruits out there.
Missouri State Trooper Tony Sandoval sat another table at the fair. He said that when he confronts uncertainty at recruiting events like this one, he advises potential candidates that they have an opportunity to change the perception of law enforcement from the inside.
“For some, it becomes a difficult decision whether to get into law enforcement or not,” Sandoval said.
“I tell them, if you want to serve your community, you want to try to make a difference, this is the job for you.”