Originally published by The Detroit News
Written by Mark Hicks
Roseville Police Chief James Berlin remembers a time when, about a decade ago, more than 200 people might apply for two or three positions at his department.
Today, he has seen fewer than 25 candidates on hiring lists for twice as many openings, and estimates at least half were unqualified or failed to pass stringent background checks.
He’s not alone. Other policing experts are calling the shortage a crisis that could affect communities for years.
“We have to do something, especially for the future,” said David Harvey, executive director at the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards, which oversees professional guidelines for officers statewide. “I think we’re at a crisis situation with the staffing at our agencies right now.”
That leaves little hope that Berlin’s force can climb to 75 spots. To find the top applicants, his staff has tapped police academies, colleges, job fairs, even plastered banners on busy Gratiot Avenue. There also are plans to team up with advocacy groups and explore another avenue “we never would have dreamed of five years ago,” Berlin said: sending alerts on social media.
“We’re going to beat the bushes wherever we can,” the chief said. “We’re going to do whatever we can think of to reach out to anybody that might be interested in a position with us — more so than we ever have in the past.”
Dwindling benefits and the rising number of attacks against police nationwide don’t help recruiting efforts, experts say.
Harvey’s group estimates Michigan law enforcement officers — including police, sheriff’s and tribal — have fallen steadily since 2001, when 22,488 worked. Through Oct. 31, that figure dipped to 18,399.
“Those were reductions due to the economy: significant reductions in revenue sharing and property taxes went down,” said Harvey, a former Garden City police chief and city manager. “Some places, people moved out. You add that up and there’s a loss of revenue into the communities for cities to pay for those services. So they had to cut somewhere.”
Some agencies no longer can afford to pay for potential recruits to attend at least 594 hours of police academy training, which can cost more than $5,000, said Robert Stevenson, executive director at the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police. Meanwhile, some benefits have also “been slowly whittled away and totally removed in many police departments,” he added. “A traditional pension is pretty much nonexistent. A lot of the inducements we put out there to attract people to the profession are no longer there.”
The jump in shootings or targeting of police nationwide, such as the five officers slain in Dallas last July, also casts a pall. The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund recently reported firearm fatalities of law enforcement officials increased 56 percent to 64 from 2015 to 2016. Of those, 21 died in ambush attacks.
3 high-profile losses in region
Metro Detroit recently experienced three high-profile losses. In November, Wayne State University K-9 Officer Collin Rose died the day after he was shot in the head in Detroit. In September, Detroit police Sgt. Kenneth Steil succumbed to injuries days after being struck around his bullet-proof vest by a shotgun-wielding suspect. Another city officer, Myron Jarrett, 40, died in a hit-and-run crash Oct. 28 while helping a traffic accident investigation.
“I don’t know if I would even choose that path today,” said Jim Paul, who grew up in Metro Detroit and spent nearly 30 years with the Michigan State Police before retiring in the 2000s. “It’s totally different than when I came in. I’ve never seen police officers targeted for assaults and assassinations like what’s going on today.”
James Tignanelli, a former Fraser patrolman and president of the Police Officers Association of Michigan, sums it up: “The job has gotten unattractive. That’s made it harder for us to hire people.”
The Howell Police Department in Livingston County has spent several months promoting two officer positions yet found only about 13 applicants, Chief George Basar said. “Some years ago, when I advertised for one position, I got 115 applications. … We’ve made the conscious decision that we’re just not going to settle for whomever. We’re trying to find the right fit for our department.”
As the pool shrinks, many police administrators notice diminishing quality in potential recruits for positions in Metro Detroit that generally start out at close to $35,000, Tignanelli said.
Candidates face a host of steps before becoming certified. According to the minimum state licensing standards published by the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards, they must pass physical fitness, vision and hearing tests as well as comprehensive background investigations covering school and employment records, home environment as well as personal traits and integrity. That means disclosing arrest and expunged convictions, law violations and personal protection orders.
That can shrink the field of candidates, Harvey said. “You put an ad out for two or three police officer positions, you get 25 people applying and half of those aren’t passing the initial background investigation because they have something on their record.”
When fewer recruits materialize, that means cops are stretched thin to cover communities.