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Police forces get creative to attract scarce recruits

The search for new Howard County police officers has taken recruiters to the southern Pennsylvania countryside and to the heart of New York City. Closer to home, they drive an SUV that looks more like a billboard from the Army's "Be all you can be" campaign, its windows emblazoned with pictures of a SWAT team and a phone number to call.

The Baltimore County Police Department has advertised its career opportunities on a plane-towed banner above Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and the Harford County sheriff's office has handed out pamphlets at a pro wrestling match. Law enforcement agencies from Annapolis to Los Angeles are offering signing bonuses, and one California police force has turned to religious leaders to help it fill its ranks.

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Faced with an officer shortage that is only expected to get worse, police agencies in the Baltimore area and across the country are getting creative. They say they don't have a choice: It's becoming increasingly difficult to find the kid who is educated, hasn't used drugs heavily and would rather work for the local sheriff than the federal government.

"I'd say it's very intense," Tracey Martinelli, a recruiter at the Harford sheriff's office, said of the competition among agencies for new officers. "Applicants are applying to multiple agencies now. Everybody's competing for that same small group of applicants. Just about every agency is struggling."

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Finding qualified police recruits has become much tougher since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, police officials say, as the expansion of federal law enforcement has created more options for people interested in the field.

"Nationwide, the trend, obviously, is that everybody's having difficulty recruiting," said Jason Abend, executive director of the National Law Enforcement Recruiters Association in Virginia. "You've got to out-market the other people, especially when you can drive down the road an hour and get in the Secret Service division."

And officials say finding future police officers is only going to become more important in the next decade as the baby boom generation settles into retirement. Departments stand to lose scores of officers with institutional knowledge in the highest positions, Abend said, adding that the impact would be more than just fewer officers patrolling the streets and longer response times.

"These guys leave and there's gaps," he said. "It's like every other job - you've got to have a mentor to do your job well."

Agencies across the country are trying new tactics to sign up the next generation of officers.

The Police Department in Sacramento, Calif., began a program that enlisted the help of ministers, rabbis and other community leaders to recruit young people to become officers.

Last week, the Los Angeles Police Department announced a plan to offer $5,000 signing bonuses to new officers and $10,000 bonuses to officers from other California police agencies who join the force.

That department, along with many others, is also increasingly recruiting on turf outside their regions. Baltimore City police, for example, have gone to Puerto Rico to find Spanish-speaking applicants.

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Many would-be police officers are accepting jobs with the federal government, which generally offers higher salaries and better benefits than local agencies, officials say. From 2000 to 2004, the number of federal law enforcement officers increased by 19 percent, to about 105,000, according to the Bureau of Justice.

"When you hear the FBI and CIA recruiting on the radio, you know it's a time when everybody's looking," said Kenneth Garner, a commander with the L.A.P.D.

At the same time, more and more officers are becoming eligible for retirement. While national statistics are not readily available, Baltimore County police say that 35 of 38 high-ranking officers - captains, majors and colonels - will be eligible for retirement by the end of this year. Howard County police are preparing to lose 10 percent of their sworn officers within three years.

Officials say the problem is not finding applicants, but finding enough people who meet basic qualifications.

Many applicants pass written and physical tests but drop out of contention because of prior drug use, authorities say. Some departments routinely turn away more than half of applicants because of previous drug use, officials say.

"Nowadays, young people are experimenting with drugs at a younger age - ecstasy, marijuana," said Officer Angela Avent, a recruiter with Baltimore County police.

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Some departments have relaxed standards for prior drug use to expand the pool of applicants. In Maryland, the panel that sets statewide hiring standards decided in 2003 to permit applicants who have experimented with cocaine and to loosen standards on prior marijuana use. The panel has considered other proposals to further modify the standards.

Sacramento Police Capt. Kevin Johnson, who lectures nationally on recruiting techniques, said departments should consider loosening drug standards. His recently decided to eliminate any disqualifying factors, and now it takes a "whole person" approach in a deciding whether someone should be hired.

"Most departments recognize that they have a recruitment problem," Johnson said. "But they don't realize the problem is them, internally. And a lot of them are just throwing up their hands, saying it's the generation, the economy, it's everybody else but us."

Westminster Police Chief Jeff Spaulding said smaller departments are particularly affected by the shortage of officers because they have to compete with bigger agencies, such as the state police and the Baltimore City Police Department, for recruits.

Two years ago, his department began offering take-home cruisers and $1,500 signing bonuses to new officers. The city raised starting salaries for officers last year to $38,500 - $4,500 more than new officers made in 2005.

The perks appear to have had an affect: The agency went from eight officer vacancies in 2005 to none currently.

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Annapolis police, hoping to fill 19 vacancies on a 131-officer force, last year began offering $3,000 signing bonuses on top of a starting salary of $39,632. Officials there say it's too soon to know whether the signing bonuses have been effective.

Most departments have focused on getting the word out that they're looking for recruits.

Recruiters at the Harford sheriff's office, which recently added 20 positions to meet the needs of a growing population, set up tables on the concourse of First Mariner Arena during several events in 2005, including a WWE wrestling match and Monster Truck rally. Martinelli, the department's personnel director, said the visits were not effective, and the department now focuses on advertising on Web sites such as Monster.com and on putting up billboards along major highways.

Howard County, seeking to add 20 officers to its 390-officer force, recently started running radio and television ads for the first time. The department's two full-time recruiters have given presentations to criminal justice college students in Waynesboro, Pa., and New York City.

Last year, the department bought a Chevy Tahoe, its windows emblazoned with pictures of officers in tactical unit gear and dramatic poses along with the motto, "Who do you want to be?" A recruiter drives around in the car full time and frequently puts it on display inside Arundel Mills mall.

Sgt. Bill Porter, one of the department's recruiters, shows potential applicants a video that plays up the county's rural vistas, well-regarded schools and proximity to Baltimore and Washington.

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He also takes pains to be friendly with recruits, smiling, asking about their personal lives, even sharing with them his experience of losing his wife to illness.

"I don't want them going to Baltimore County or Harford County," Porter said. "I try to one-up them by making [recruits] feel a part of Howard County by the time they leave."

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com


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