Crime rates across the country may be down, but that does not mean police officers are in less demand. What are known as “calls for service” continue to increase, as police departments struggle to recruit and retain police officers to answer the public’s calls for help.
November 1, 2018 was graduation day in Springfield, Massachusetts for 40 recruits who made it through a lengthy hiring process and then six months of intense training to become police officers.
Springfield Police Commissioner John Barbieri addressed the graduating class.
“I want to thank you for your willingness to join a profession in some of its most difficult and darkest times,” he said to the new officers. “It has never been more dangerous. We’ve never been under more scrutiny.”
Why would anyone want to join a profession that is fraught with peril and subject to intense second-guessing? The truth is fewer and fewer people do. The pool of applicants for law enforcement careers across the country has been shrinking for the last 20 years.
“It used to be a job that was in high demand,” said Springfield Deputy Police Chief Cheryl Clapprood. “We had to cut people out, you waited on lists, and crossed your fingers (hoping to get hired). Now, it is tough to get good candidates.”
One reason: the profession is not universally held in as high regard as it once was.
“The public perception is there are a lot of bad cops out there, that we abuse our power, and that is simply not the case, but the public perception is (otherwise),” said Clapprood.
There has always been risk working in law enforcement, but lately the danger seems more prevalent.
“Every four, five, six days you hear about an officer getting killed,” said Clapprood.
The National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund lists more than 100 officers who have been killed in the line of duty this year as of Nov. 1st.
Just a few weeks before training began for the most recent class at the Springfield Police Academy, Police Officer Sean Gannon was shot and killed on Cape Cod. And just a few weeks after the academy began, another police officer in Massachusetts was murdered, Michael Chesna in Weymouth.
“The danger is something you always think about,” acknowledged Rafael Mestre, 36, who after 4-and-a-half years in the military including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan followed by work with an agency that helps people with mental health problems, decided to become a police officer.
“I see myself as someone who wants to serve the community, who wants to help and be there if the community needs me,” said Mestre.
Hired to work for the Chicopee Police Department, Mestre said he’ll rely on what his instructors at the police academy told him to try and stay safe.
“They harp on effective communication, problem solving, and the importance of being empathetic with the people we will serve,” said Mestre.
Another new police officer, 27-year old Ian MacDonald, said the academy training has prepared him to deal with the scrutiny that comes with the job.
“Doing the right thing and doing what you’re taught,” said MacDonald.
To try to keep police officers, and the public safe, the Springfield Police Academy has emphasized what is known as de-escalation training. Academy instructor Officer Edward VanZandt said the recruits are taught to diffuse potentially violent situations.
“We do a lot of scenarios that involve role playing,” explained VanZandt. “ We put our recruit officers in situations that emulate what they are going to see on the streets as much as possible.”
There was a wave of police hiring across the country in the 1990s, much of it paid for with federal funds. Now, thousands of police officers are heading to retirement.
Deputy Chief Clapprood, who joined the Springfield Police Department 39 years ago, said the baton must go to the next generation.
“It used to be they wanted (a police officer) to be tall and mean and be able to intimidate people, but it is so much more now,” said Clapprood. Police officers are expected to first responders to all types of emergencies, take on the duties of social workers, and be well-versed in the law.
“ They’re asking so much of us now,” said Clapprood.
Clapprood said a hiring process that can take up to five months also discourages applicants.
“ There is a background check, a lot of paperwork, a psychiatric exam, an interview, a physical fitness (test),” said Clapprood.
The six-month training academy is mentally and physically grueling. Academy instructor VanZandt said that, on average, 25 percent of the recruits who start an academy don’t make it to graduation.
“They are tested and have to perform to a certain standard and if they don’t they may be dismissed from the academy,” said VanZandt.
Along with the challenge of recruiting people to join the police department, Springfield has also struggled to retain officers.
The death of Springfield Police Officer Kevin Ambrose in 2012 touched off a wave of retirements that has left the department continuously short-staffed.
Ambrose, a 37-year veteran police officer, was shot dead during a domestic dispute. In the five years prior to his death a total of 69 police officers retired, and in the five years since, a total of 104 officers put in for retirement.
There are currently 17 vacancies in the 510-member police department.
“ We are still 9-1-1 driven and we have to maintain the staffing levels in the squads,” said Clapprood, who explained that can lead to mandatory overtime which can tire and frustrate officers.
To address the shortage, Springfield began a program earlier this year to hire back retired police officers to work extra-duty details such as directing traffic at construction sites or helping out with crowd control at events.
Given the recruiting and retention problems, the obvious question is: Has the Springfield Police Department lowered its hiring standards?
“ We have not,” Clapprood said emphatically.
Clapprood said another obstacle to recruiting for the Springfield Police Department is a requirement, effective with this class of academy graduates, that Springfield police officers must now live in the city for the first ten years of their employment with the department.
“We are just not getting the candidates from the inner city,” said Clapprood.
The way the job of a police officer is advertised and marketed can make a big difference in recruiting, believes Mathew Forte, a retired police consultant who was once the head of human resources for the police department of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
“Police salaries are very good, generally and the benefits that come with police work such as the retirement system, which in today’s (employment) market can be very very attractive,” Forte said.
The starting salary for a patrol officer in Springfield is $60,322.
Forte said there will always be those who think negatively about police officers, and that should not discourage people from pursuing a career in policing.
“Policing is a good job because it is trying to help people,” said Forte.
Additionally, Forte said the danger of police work is sometimes overblown.
“It is less dangerous if you have proper training, proper equipment and proper backing,” said Forte.
Police work ranks in the middle of the 25 jobs with the highest fatality rates in the United States, according to data from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.