7 Investigates: Police Recruitment

Published: Feb. 3, 2017 at 7:03 PM CST
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Law enforcement officers are there to protect and serve all citizens in and around their jurisdictions, but '7 Investigates' finds fewer people want to bear the burden of the badge.

Over the last decade, the number of people signing up to join law enforcement has dwindled. Marathon County Sheriff Scott Parks said hiring in the 1980s and 90s was a lot different than today.

"You could easily see 100-150 people applying for a position in law enforcement at that time. Now you're seeing around 34-35 applicants, I think was our last testing," Sheriff Parks said. No matter the size of the department, the downward trend persists. "And then when you take a look at that,” Parks added, “some of those individuals are washed out almost immediately when you start doing a background on them, so it really limits our numbers."

The size of the department, however does often determine more of the retention: the larger the department, the less likely officers will leave before they retire.

"The Sheriff's Office is a fairly large agency and it has a lot of special teams, like SWAT, and Dive, and Bomb,” explained Parks, “so there are opportunities that you can advance into your different areas."

"So, those specializations that a lot of larger departments have that especially young, eager officers want, we don't have to offer to them," Kronenwetter Police Chief Terry McHugh said.

His department has seven full time officer positions, all of whom have signed three year contracts. To save the village money, the department also hires part time officers, who can leave if they get another job.

"We had somebody, worked them up through the whole process, got them on field training, we issued out all of the equipment, he's rocking and rolling on field training, one month into it, he's with the sheriff's office," McHugh said.

7 Investigates requested hiring data from more than 20 agencies throughout the 11-county viewing area. For most departments, complete outfitting and training costs about $20,000 and can take months to complete. Add another $5,000 just in tuition for departments, such as Wausau, which pays for new officers to go through police academy if they have not already done so themselves. If an officer leaves or is terminated prematurely, the taxpayer money invested in that officer goes with him or her, unless there are contractual terms, like the Antigo Police Department’s, where officers must pay back hiring costs if they leave within three years.

As the number of applicants continues to drop, so do the number of qualified candidates. When asked if standards of excellence have been lowered to fill open positions, McHugh replied, “it's a good question and I've heard that suggested before. It's very inadvisable to do that. It's a real slippery slope."

"Chief Hardel says we hire for character, we train for skill,” answered Wausau Police Department Deputy Chief Ben Bliven, “and that's one reason - the most significant reason we're willing to send people to recruit school to become certified as a police officer." Bliven added that it allows them to broaden their applicant pool.

Officer Mike Horejs is one of the newest recruits to the Wausau Police Department. On the day he was sworn in, he told NewsChannel 7, "it's a big step and it's a big commitment as we look down this career line ahead of us that we're starting today." He along with the two other officers sworn in in January are currently getting recruit training at Northcentral Technical College.

Officer Chris Codere also took advantage of the free schooling. He was officially hired and sworn into the Wausau Police Department in August, 2016. After serving in the Marine Corps, he got his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, but then became a salesman.

"I'm finally coming full circle back to the career field that I'm meant for," he said.

"If you're a qualified applicant, you've got your best job opportunity now," Marathon County Sheriff Deputy Paul Clarke Jr. said. He has been a NTC criminal justice instructor for the last 13 years. He explained while their classes are not at the maximum capacity of 32, they are not small either. Their average size class is in the mid 20s.

"When we hear some of our employers saying 'we're not seeing a ton of applicants. What's going on?' We're putting the graduates out there," said Clarke.

Many law enforcement agencies that spoke with 7 Investigates credited some of the decline to a better economy and more variety in the job market, or the difficulty of the job itself and the strain it puts on personal and family life. There is one over-arching speculation all departments agree on: the climate of policing.

Officer-involved shootings throughout the country have caused departments and their officers to face increasing criticism, including sometimes being accused of racism, with people protesting for reform. Video cameras are now only a thumb tap away and the public is looking to hold officers accountable, regardless if their actions are justified.

"People see what other people say about law enforcement and they're less inclined to want to go into law enforcement, because they don't want to be treated that way; they don't want to be thought of in that way," Bliven said.

"I've had a lot of people that say that they would think about being police officers, but with the atmosphere nowadays, they just couldn't see themselves doing it," said Ben Hamilton. He is currently attending NTC's recruit school, hoping to become a police officer, despite what people think about the field. "The only way you can change it is to lead by example," he concluded. That is a sentiment shared by the Wausau Police Department.

"We had a candidate in this last recruitment where we asked that question..." explained Bliven. "He said 'with all that's going on in our country, it's time for people of character to stand up and to get into this profession to help this profession navigate these waters that we're currently experiencing... I think that was probably one of the greatest answers I heard, because I think it's true."

That character Bliven said he sees in his new recruits.

"It can definitely be difficult," said Horejs. "I was looking for something that would give me the opportunity to be involved in community, and this is an incredible chance to do that."

"I know what I'm able to bring to the table to hopefully sway anybody that has those unfortunate thoughts about us," stated Codere.

Codere, whom has been in field training for about two months, said with having a family, there was no way he would have been able to go to pay for and attend the police academy, which is a full time commitment, and not have a job supporting them. He added he has always had a passion to protect and serve, and the opportunity at Wausau, allowed him to pursue it.

"It's an easy transition from the military because what we do in the military is just on a broader scale in terms of protecting and serving, so it's nice to be able to come back home and provide that to a local community as well," he said.

While his field training officer, Brian Burkhardt said he is doing well in his first phase of training, Burkhardt added that when new officers need more time to learn in the field, they ensure those officers have that opportunity.

"The department has already invested a lot of time, energy, and money into these new officers,” Burkhardt said. “We are more than willing to spend a couple extra weeks if necessary in each phase to get them where they need to be, because we're not going to put somebody out on the road who isn't ready to do so. It's way too dangerous of a job to have them go out and be unprepared."

At times, that extra training is not enough and new officers must be let go. Bliven said “those are really, really difficult decisions, there's no question about that and we don't always agree in terms of when that should happen."

In a request for hiring records, Bliven stated that 47 officers have been hired since 2007, eight of which were no longer with the department within the first year of employment.

Like the Wausau Police Department, all departments 7 Investigates spoke with would rather hire for character over skill in order to avoid someone who will not provide the community with the law enforcement “excellence,” that Bliven said the community expects and deserves.

Many departments like Wausau and Marathon County are taking media into their own hands, creating recruitment videos to entice people to apply. Both departments told 7 Investigates their videos have attracted people from across the country, even as far away as Alaska. Several agencies also offer citizens academies, giving people interested in how the department works, a condensed version of their training and show how the agency functions.

7 Investigates requested hiring information in the last 10-15 years (or whatever the department could provide) from more than 20 departments across the 11-county viewing area asking for: 1) application numbers for open officer positions, 2) overtime costs when an officer position is left open (or the overtime rate for an average patrol officer), 3) cost to create a new officer, including law enforcement academy costs, outfitting, field training, etc., 4) number of times officers have left or been terminated within the probationary period (generally one year after being sworn in), and 5) number of open officer positions, including any current openings, and number of sworn officer positions total for the department. See the attached spreadsheet to find out how departments responded.