The Seattle Police Department recently erected a billboard in Indianapolis to recruit Hoosiers for its force in Washington state, and other police departments have addressed staffing shortages by allowing officers to sport beards, mustaches and tattoos.
State and local governments across the country are having more trouble hiring police officers than any other category of personnel, studies show.
To address the shortage, a national bidding war for police force applicants has broken out. Departments are employing creative approaches to attract talent, including lip sync videos in Seattle and “Star Wars”-themed recruitment efforts in Fort Worth, Texas, as well as more traditional signing bonuses.
“We are in a perfect storm scenario with jurisdictions everywhere trying to add bodies and a demographic bubble of people retiring and nationally low unemployment. Put all that together and you see what we’re up against,” said Mike Fields, executive director of human resources for the Seattle Police Department.
The Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that the average number of full-time police officers in America has dropped 11% since 1997, from 2.42 to 2.17 per 1,000 residents.
The problem appears to be worsening. The Police Executive Research Forum think tank in Washington recently found that 66% of 400 police departments it surveyed said their number of applicants has decreased.
The research forum also found that 29% of those who voluntarily left a force did so within one year of joining and another 40% left within five years.
Multiple factors are fueling the national slump, Mr. Fields and other police recruiters say.
At the start of the Great Recession, jobs were scarce and police officer applications were healthy. In 2010, for instance, the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department in Tennessee received 4,700 applications to join the force.
Since the economic recovery has tightened the job market, young potential recruits are looking elsewhere for paychecks. Last year, Nashville received just 1,900 applications.
The national average for police pay is $62,000 a year, according to the Department of Labor, but millennials see the hours that come with the work as long, erratic and dangerous. The perception increased after a spate of street protests over police shootings this decade.
Aging baby boomers are also a factor. Some of the 100,000 officers hired in the 1990s under a federal policing initiative are retiring, said Chuck Wexler, director of the Police Executive Research Forum.
In Seattle, where the starting salary for police is $79,000, department officials and city leaders are using all means necessary to fight the trend.
The Indianapolis recruiting billboards, which encouraged officers to transfer to the Northwest, also went up in Honolulu, Houston and Atlanta. According to The Associated Press, Seattle’s boldness even drew admiration from Indianapolis’ Fraternal Order of Police.
The city also expanded its reach with more out-of-state recruiting trips. San Jose, California, police said that tactic has attracted applicants.
“There is no magic bullet,” Mr. Fields said. “You have to grind it out and do all you can to tell a good human story of what it means to join the police. In our case, we took our recruiting on the road.”
Seattle also offers a $15,000 signing bonus for applicants with three years of policing experience. Entry-level recruits get $7,500.
Like other communities, Seattle has worked to diversify its staff and humanize the image of policing. A lip-sync video that included Mayor Jenny Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best scored more than 1 million YouTube views.
Two years ago, the Fort Worth Police Department in Texas made a comedy recruiting video hit that featured Chewbacca, the friendly Wookiee warrior of the “Star Wars” universe. In the clip, the furry gurgling giant spends the day following an officer giving traffic warnings, hitting the shooting range and training for physical defense.
New Mexico State Police are using similar techniques, said Capt. Jesse Williams, the head of force recruiting.
Previous promotions were mostly TV and radio advertising, Capt. Williams told Officer.com. A move to social media featured personal stories of police life and spawned an effective “word of mouth” communications campaign. Applications have recently shot up about 40%.
“If you can’t sell your agency, people go to the highest bidder, and that’s problematic if you’re an agency that struggles to attract the right people,” Capt. Williams said. “We in law enforcement can do a better job highlighting the many positive things about police work.”