Almost half of the 25 Spokane police officers hired last year to attack crime are gone.
With them went nearly $400,000 that taxpayers spent to train, pay and dress the rookies during the months before they walked out or were tossed out.
Replacing them may prove difficult because of a city hiring freeze announced last week.
The exodus has been happening quietly since January in the halls of the Spokane Police Department, where supervisors typed termination letters and accepted resignations from recruits one by one. Some administrators said at least two more firings may be coming.
“It could be one of the highest losses I’ve ever heard of,” said Garry Wegner, assistant director for the state’s police training commission. “And most of these people are quitting, not just getting washed out. For one reason or another, they’re dissatisfied with their agency.”
Most recruits who quit said they were disappointed with postacademy training and blamed their departures on poor management, inadequate supervision and a hostile work environment.
Police administrators admitted the dropout rate is high, but said they usually lose 20 to 40 percent of new recruits in the first year.
They also say Spokane Civil Service hiring methods for police are cumbersome and sometimes prevent the department from hiring the best people.
Police Chief Terry Mangan said many in the latest recruit class scored lower on the Civil Service test than he would have liked.
“Obviously we’re very much concerned about losing these people,” Mangan said. “But we don’t have a future machine that’s going to tell us what someone is going to be like. We stand by our training program. We do everything we can to try to bring them along.”
The first recruits to quit were two women, both in their 20s. They were barely two weeks into the street training program - a four-month evaluation period that comes after the academy.
One said she had trouble with inconsistent training officers who changed performance standards from one day to the next, as well as from one rookie to another.
“It was hard getting any guidance at all,” said the recruit, who asked not to be identified. “It seemed like all they wanted was for us to fail.”
Both women were performing well and caught supervisors by surprise with their resignations, Lt. Glenn Winkey said.
“They decided police work wasn’t for them,” he said. “That happens once they get out of the academy and onto the streets. This is when we lose most of our people.”
Both women disagreed with Winkey. They still want to be cops and are applying for police jobs in other cities.
Next came the firing of one of the oldest recruits, followed by two more resignations.
One who quit was 48-year-old Lyle Buerkens, a former Marine who graduated at the top of his academy class.
With a retirement check from the military, Buerkens said he didn’t need to work as a cop for $400 a week.
When his wife got sick and his schedule changed so he only saw her about seven hours a week, Buerkens left. He doesn’t regret the decision he made shortly after Easter.
Training at the police department “wasn’t what I expected,” Buerkens said. “There is this attitude of, ‘We want to take it upon ourselves to wash you, the rookie, out.’ It was very hostile.”
The fifth resignation came a few weeks later.
Two more recruits - both former department reserve officers - were fired last week.
“I’m not 100 percent sure what I did wrong,” one rookie said. “I think some of the training officers and I didn’t hit it off. If you’re not liked, you’re screwed.”
Another dropout said he was told by instructors that his report-writing wasn’t acceptable, but he never received help on how to improve. Finally, he said was called in to see a sergeant, who suggested the rookie resign.
“He basically told me to go to work for another department and get some experience and then try to come back,” the recruit said. “He said if I didn’t leave I’d probably get washed out anyway, and resigning looked better.”
The rookie, now interviewing with four other police departments in the state, said he was reluctant to quit because he wanted the job badly.
“But then I got mad, because I passed report-writing in the academy,” he said. “If I was having such problems with it, why did I pass?”
It could be because writing make-believe police reports for homework is different than writing lawyer-proof reports on deadline, said Winkey, who oversees the recruits’ street training.
“At the academy, things are almost real, almost stressful,” Winkey said. “We demand a lot of our officers. You wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Two of the recruits never made it through training.
Mangan said he doubted the claims of inequity and praised his instructors for maintaining high standards.
With staffing levels stretched, the department might be tempted to let requirements slide in order to keep officers on the street, Mangan said.
“For the (training officers) it could be, ‘Well, we’re hurting for officers now, we’d rather let this or that go than lose another body,”’ he said. “That’s not a good strategy in the long run, though. Not when you think of the liabilities involved in police work.”
Mangan and other police administrators blame Civil Service procedures for the high wash-out rate.
A police test is given by Civil Service once every two years, and candidates who pass are ranked according to their scores.
Whenever there’s an opening for more officers, department officials can only choose candidates from that list, weeding them out as more screening continues.
Last year’s recruits were chosen from the tail end of a 2-year-old list, Mangan said. With 25 openings, he said he expected a high dropout rate from the class.
“We had money budgeted for these officers and a crying need for more police,” he said. “But we knew the probability of getting good officers from that deep in the list was going to be lower.”
Mangan said he’s asked the Civil Service Commission to change the system. If the test was given and a new list made each time the department needs more officers, better candidates could be selected and fewer would drop out, he said.
Police recruits in Tacoma are hired under such a system, and only about 9 percent of their rookies fall out the first year.
“By the time they hit our field-training program after the academy, we have an awful lot of money invested in them,” said Officer Ken Zilke, who oversees recruits in Tacoma. “It’s a big waste of a lot of money and time and energy if we can’t get them through it.”
Spokane Civil Service Director Harvey Harden, however, said Mangan’s claim is a cop-out. The chief can hire anyone he wants, he said.
“If they get through a list and can’t fill all their openings, we’ll give a new test right away and make a new list,” he said. “The list is good for two years or until it’s used up. They always forget that part - or until it’s used up.”
When police officials start considering candidates from the list, they eliminate the ones who don’t measure up through a series of physical tests, background checks, lie detector tests and interviews.
Harden said his office gets a letter from the department when a candidate should be removed from the list for whatever reason. Rarely does the commission challenge that decision, he said.
“We don’t tell them to hire anybody,” Harden said. “And if they couldn’t find 25 good police officers on that list, they shouldn’t have hired them. There’s no excuse for that and they know it. Period.”
Whatever the reason, Spokane taxpayers trained new recruits for some other department, the dropouts said.
Their diplomas from the academy will keep them eligible for police work for two more years. Several may move to West Side departments by the end of summer.
“The ones I’ve interviewed at are relieved that I’ve already been trained,” one recruit said. “It’s less money for them.”
Click here to comment on this story »