With Fewer Police Applicants, Departments Engage in Bidding Wars

Hiring police officers is much harder than it used to be. To stay competitive, some are offering generous pay increases and bonuses.
by | April 2018
(AP/Rogelio V. Solis)

Like many law enforcement agencies, the Utah Highway Patrol has lots of vacancies to fill as officers leave for higher-paying jobs. It also has a lot of competition. Salt Lake City recently announced plans to hire 50 additional officers for its police force. This prompted the city council in nearby Ogden to approve pay raises and extra bonuses for many of its officers as a preemptive measure to thwart departures to the larger department in Salt Lake.

Highway Patrol Col. Mike Rapich has observed what he calls a “wage war” among agencies competing for personnel. “We’re in a really aggressive recruiting effort,” he says, “probably more so than I’ve seen in the 25 years I’ve been with the agency.”

Law enforcement officials across the country say they’re struggling to fill vacancies, largely due to retirements and moves to the private sector. A national survey by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence found last year that governments are having more trouble hiring police than any other category of personnel. Agencies are scrambling to attract and retain talent, often by boosting compensation packages or ramping up recruitment.

When police departments were hiring decades ago, they were often flooded with several hundred or even a thousand applicants for relatively few openings. Now, police chiefs report, applicant pools can be a quarter of what they once were.

One driving factor is the stronger economy. Rapich says about half of his departing state police officers moved to the private sector or chose to pursue other opportunities outside of law enforcement, such as going back to school. That’s led the agency not only to bolster its recruiting efforts, but also to seek funding help from the legislature.

Another factor is the uptick in retirements among baby boomers. Some law enforcement officials also blame negative public perceptions of police for part of their recruiting woes. “The national narrative of the last couple of years is pretty condemning of policing,” says Richard Myers, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. “It has had a strong adverse effect on recruiting people from the very communities we most need to hire.” In all, Myers estimates about 80 percent of large city departments are struggling to attract enough job applicants.

Some of those departments are getting creative in their recruitment efforts. The Fort Worth Police Department produced a series of Star Wars-themed recruiting videos on YouTube that officials say generated a lot of interest. San Jose, Calif., police hired a professional advertising and marketing firm to help attract job candidates. Off-duty “satellite recruiters” are deployed to community events in San Jose and assist with mentoring and coaching applicants through the hiring process.

The San Jose Police Department also has expanded its reach with more out-of-state recruiting trips. A trip to a job fair in New York City last year yielded more than 150 applicants. “Hearing it from an officer is so much more powerful than reading it in a flyer or advertisement,” says Heather Randol, who heads the recruitment effort. “There are fewer applicants than there were 10 or 15 years ago, but they’re out there. We’re figuring out a way to find them, and we know other agencies are doing the same.” 

 

 

With fewer applicants, some law enforcement agencies have revised hiring requirements to accommodate more prospective officers, such as lowering education requirements or removing restrictions prohibiting those with prior minor offenses from qualifying.

Perhaps the most pervasive consequence of all the competition is the effect on compensation packages. San Diego gave its officers pay increases of 25 to 30 percent last year, after staffing dropped well below authorized levels. Along with wage hikes and enhanced benefits, some departments are offering new hires additional signing bonuses. Salt Lake City police recruiters actively target officers from other cities, attracting lateral hires by allowing them to count their years of experience toward their salaries in the new position. The department reports it may soon make enough lateral hires to fill an entire police academy class. It’s also one of several agencies offering employees incentives to refer experienced officers in other agencies for job openings. Salt Lake City awards up to $600, while San Jose officers may receive up to $6,500.

Increasingly, the competition for officers is pitting localities against their states, as it has done in Utah. Georgia awarded its state law enforcement officers 20 percent raises early last year. The move frustrated local police chiefs, who contend their cops deserve a similar raise. State and local elected officials are exploring proposals to help close the gap.

All of this has serious consequences for agencies that are struggling to keep up. Ogden reports it has lost 16 officers over the past two-and-a-half years to Salt Lake, which is more than twice as large. In January, Ogden city officials approved pay raises and bonuses for employees meeting education requirements in an effort to stem further attrition. “Police officers with a good record and good experience are a highly marketable commodity,” says Randy Watt, the police chief in Ogden. “It’s not as much increased demand as competition between the agencies.”

 

 

For smaller departments with thinner budgets, competing for candidates can be particularly challenging. They don’t have the resources to recruit the way Salt Lake or San Jose can afford to do. Payroll data reported in the Census Bureau’s Annual Survey of Public Employment and Payroll suggests that larger agencies tend to pay more, with particularly big disparities between localities with more than 1,000 officers and other departments. “The stress on the smaller agencies is great,” Watt says. “We’re losing our people to state agencies and Salt Lake City because their tax base is so high.”

The police department in Clearfield, Utah, which has about 30,000 people, conducts regular wage comparison studies in an effort to remain competitive. Kelly Bennett, Clearfield’s assistant chief of police, says his department of 31 officers is typically able to retain those who don’t have a desire to work for a large municipality. Those without that small-town preference, however, are the ones likely to leave over differences in pay. “We’re seeing compensation plans we’ve never seen here in Utah,” Bennett says. “Everyone is trying to get creative to have that perfect compensation plan to attract officers from other departments.”