Few applicants seeking police careers, leaders say

Capital News Service

LANSING — Police departments across Michigan and throughout the country are experiencing a shortage of qualified applicants, police leaders say.

Howell Police Chief George Basar said years ago he would have 120 applicants for one available position and had to conduct a qualifying test to reduce the number of potential hires.

Now, however, Basar has advertised two positions for four months and received only nine applications.

“That is a common story across the state and across the nation — we just can’t bring people into the profession,” said Basar, a past president of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police,

Cadillac police Capt. Eric Eller said more than 100 applicants took the police entrance exam when he did 23 years ago. The department’s last exam saw only 20 to 25.

“Our numbers of applications have dropped considerably in the past few years,” Eller said.

One potential cause is a lack of incentives for public-sector employment, Basar said. For example, benefits have been stripped or modified as cost-saving measures, often to the detriment of longtime employees.

Robert Stevenson, executive director of the association, said the loss of benefits has caused a brain drain at the top of police organizations.

Some experienced officers, himself included, are forced to either retire or lose benefits they spent decades working towards, he said. To preserve his benefits, Stevenson retired after 37 years with the Livonia Police Department

“I actually left my department sooner than I probably would have, just strictly because I’d worked my whole career for my benefits and they were taking my benefits away,” Stevenson said.

Public pressure could be another disincentive to join the ranks, Basar said.

Some police officers doing “incredibly stupid things” that cause the entire profession to be painted negatively doesn’t help, he said. Nor does the fear that officers will go to prison for making mistakes under increased scrutiny.

Another barrier is the cost of mandatory training. Tuition at a police academy costs $6,000-$8,000 at a community college, plus numerous fees, Basar said.

Post-recession, many municipal departments cannot afford to put recruits through academies, meaning applicants must pay the full cost of their training, Stevenson said.

That also contributes to a lack of diversity in departments, as the cost discourages many financially disadvantaged applicants, including many minorities, from pursuing law enforcement careers, Basar said.

A lot of police hiring is generational, Stevenson said. Many officers come from families where parents and grandparents were also officers. With changes to the profession, many officers now discourage their families from following in their footsteps.

“Now what you’re hearing is police officers are telling their children, ‘Don’t be a police officer, this is not the job you want to have,'” Stevenson said.

A lack of qualified applicants hurts the profession, not only in Michigan, but throughout the United States, Stevenson said, noting that departments in other states face the same problems.

Cadillac’s Eller agreed the problem is widespread.

“Other departments I’ve talked to, they’re having a hard time getting applicants,” Eller said. “I know that there are fewer people looking into law enforcement — there’s actually quite a few jobs out there.”

Applications have been down since the recession began in 2008-09, although it seems most departments are now hiring, Eller said.

The shortage hasn’t impacted the Cadillac Police Department’’s work, Eller said, as it still receives quality applications. He said the department hasn’t had problems retaining officers, with most leaving at retirement age if at all.

“We’ve been lucky enough that we’ve been able to fill all the positions that have been open,” Eller said. “Then again, we’re a smaller department, so we kind of have to fill those spots.”