People driving through downtown Denver during the last month have been seeing a strange advertisement.
Above a dentist’s office and a sushi restaurant, there’s a billboard – for the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.
“HIRING 40 LATERAL OFFICERS,” the billboard reads. “$15K HIRING BONUS.”
You can find ads just like it in Portland and the Seattle area. Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said he hopes the billboards will entice officers at other agencies to come to Eastern Washington and help solve his staffing shortage.
The Sheriff’s Office has 227 authorized deputies, but it’s shorthanded by 40.
Knezovich is using his $140,000 recruiting budget to try to fill those empty slots.
“This is a nationwide problem,” Knezovich said. “The entire nation is having a hard time filling their ranks because recruitment is way off. … I feel fortunate because I have seen agencies that are at 50% strength, and I don’t know how you do anything at that level.”
There are a few reasons for the national cop shortage – including the COVID-19 pandemic and low unemployment prepandemic – but one of the main reasons is fewer young people want to become law enforcement officers.
Public perception of the profession is low after years of highly publicized police killings of Black people, including George Floyd’s murder last May in Minneapolis. Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed Floyd, was found guilty of murder Tuesday.
“Would you want to come to work in a profession that has been hammered and labeled racist and white supremacist?” Knezovich said. “It’s far from the truth and far from being accurate, but that’s what has happened.”
Spokane NAACP President Kiantha Duncan said she’s thankful for the work police do to protect the community, but she’s not surprised fewer people want to become police officers. She said accusations of police racism are justified.
“It’s not far from the truth and it’s not far from accurate,” she said. “I think that law enforcement, current law enforcement, has to take some responsibility in there being a shortage. … They’ve brought on so many issues that this is no longer the protect-and-serve, honorable career.”
Knezovich remembers starting out in law enforcement and being one of 1,000 applicants vying for a handful of positions.
Now, he said he’s lucky if he gets 70 applicants for an opening. Law enforcement agencies have stringent hiring requirements, so only about one in 10 applicants will be a viable candidate.
Knezovich isn’t the only sheriff in Washington struggling to hire. Applicants sent by agencies last year to the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission’s Basic Law Enforcement Academy were down 42%, from 734 in 2019 to 427 in 2020.
“The new hire pool is almost nonexistent,” Knezovich said.
That’s why Knezovich is going after lateral hires – people who are already officers at other agencies. He said he strategically placed his billboards in cities where public officials haven’t supported law enforcement.
Since buying the billboard space, the Sheriff’s Office has heard from more than 20 officers interested in applying. Knezovich said he might buy more billboard space in California and on the East Coast in the future.
The Spokane Police Department has 344 sworn officers and isn’t as shorthanded as the Sheriff’s Office, but it’s still understaffed.
A few years ago, Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl wasn’t worried about recruiting. “I remember thinking, ‘We don’t have a problem,’ ” he said. “Now … we have about a dozen vacancies.”
Stephen James, an assistant professor at Washington State University’s College of Nursing, studies the impacts of stress on law enforcement officers. He said it’s difficult to sell people on getting into the profession right now.
Yes, the pay and benefits are good, but you have to deal with long hours, extreme levels of stress and anti-police sentiment, James explained.
Meidl said he thinks fewer young people are applying because they repeatedly see law enforcement portrayed in a bad light and vilified on the news.
“You have these potential candidates that are like, ‘Why would I want to go through that?’ ” Meidl said.
Relative to other parts of the country, the Pacific Northwest has some recruiting advantages. It’s a bidding war for officers and the region can typically pay well.
Recruiting is about more than money though. Meidl said his department’s special divisions – such as SWAT, hostage negotiation, dignitary protection and crowd control for instance – are a draw. Officers want a chance to work on those specialty assignments.
Spokane’s high quality of life is helpful in recruiting, too.
But both Knezovich and Meidl said the biggest advantage Spokane has is the community support of law enforcement.
“If you want to work in a community that appreciates what you do, we’re offering that opportunity right now,” Knezovich said.
What if the shortage continues?
When agencies don’t have enough officers they may respond to fewer low-priority calls or ask their existing staff to work overtime – Knezovich and Meidl both said that’s happening in their departments now.
James said a reduction in cops leads to worse policing because departments can’t do more with fewer resources. Understaffed departments have to prioritize violent crime, so other, more preventative, tasks fall by the wayside.
“The only answer (to staffing shortages) is a reduction in service and a reduction in the quality of service,” James said. “As we have more and more open slots in agencies that can’t get filled because no one wants to do the job, the type of policing you want to see is going to be sacrificed.”
People underestimate the negative consequences of overtime, James said. There are significant downsides to having so many cops working overly long shifts to make up for understaffing.
Exhaustion can decrease performance. James explained that working while tired isn’t much different than working after having a few beers.
“If you’re not able to fill those spots, your officers are getting tired,” Meidl said. “And when we’re fatigued, we’re not necessarily the best versions of ourselves.”
Calls to cut police funding and redistribute money toward social services have increased sharply in the last few years, especially since George Floyd’s death. Many have advocated for a reduction in armed officers, too.
Kurtis Robinson, who sits on the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission and serves as vice president of the Spokane NAACP, said having fewer officers “probably isn’t a bad thing.”
“It’s not that we don’t need more well-meaning, trained-up, grounded and humanizing officers,” Robinson emphasized.
Duncan said the officer shortage is a catch-22. Communities need cops to respond to critical issues, but fewer officers could come with some benefits.
“Is a shortage good in terms of that means there are … less gun-carrying, Taser-carrying officers on the street? Maybe,” Duncan said. “Law enforcement, Ozzie in particular, they have an opportunity here. They could solely focus on how do we increase the number of officers we have, or they can use this as an opportunity to say, ‘How do we restructure what the officers we have are doing?’ ”
Meidl said for now he’s not worried about staffing shortages affecting his department’s ability to respond to calls. If there aren’t more applicants in a few years though, that might no longer be the case.
And although applications to the state’s basic law enforcement academy have picked up in 2021, it’s not a guarantee the number of applicants will return to normal.
“It is something that I worry about,” Meidl said. “Because I’m just not seeing that trend change.”
If public opinion and sentiment about law enforcement improves, Meidl said he thinks more people will want to be cops again.
“I think people would be lining up,” he said. “I think we would have the pick of the litter.”
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