Southern California Police Officers Respond to Nationwide Cop Shortage
Police departments across the country continue struggling to hire cops
Cops have been under heavy scrutiny by the public eye due to the mass media’s contentious portrayal concerning police altercations in the last decade. According to Pew Research Center, 81 percent of “cops who work in departments of 100 or more sworn officers say the media generally treat the police unfairly,” with 18 percent of officers who disagree. About four-in-ten officers strongly agree that the media conveys police poorly.
Police brutality against minorities has been a hot topic since the first social media outrage over the death of an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, who was shot by a white police officer, in 2014. The “hands up, don’t shoot” movement born out of Brown’s death, partnered with “Black Lives Matter,” sparked debate with politicians, advocates and journalists. Four years following the incident, police departments struggle to hire worthy cops, and police brutality has become a regular news beat in newsrooms. In response to some of these cases, ambush on cops has become an additional threat.
However, the media isn’t purely to blame for the lack of hirees. Some of the blunder falls on the police department’s candidates themselves, who often struggle through the hiring process. According to Chief Timothy Finneran of Azusa Pacific University’s Department of Campus Safety, many applicants cannot pass the thorough hiring process testing and background investigation. With the rise of social media and increased expectations, candidates must possess a variety of qualities.
“Law Enforcement agencies continue to look for qualified mature candidates that can carry out the intense duties of law enforcement officer and will not tarnish the badge,” Finneran said. “I do not believe that has changed.”
The business of policing has become increasingly difficult with expanded responsibilities for more equipment and frequent changes in the law or case law, Chief Steven Hunt of the Azusa Police Department revealed.
“We are looking for independent thinkers who are able to process complex situations and make good decisions under stress,” Hunt said. “They have to be able to communicate well with the public and yet be able to maintain order when required.”
Since cops are exposed to new technologies, they must have an understanding of not only the technology but social media as well, according to Hunt.
Another challenge departments face is the difficulty of the hiring process. Most candidates do not pass each application mark.
“We recently had to change our hiring practices,” Hunt said. “After flying the position for about a month and accepting nearly 100 candidates, we netted zero candidates when the process was complete.”
Approximately half showed up for the written exam, which is very common for applicants who apply to become Azusa PD officers, Hunt said.
“The written exam and physical ability test, disqualified more candidates,” he continued. “After the oral interviews, we were left with under 10 candidates who were not successful in the background screening, leaving us zero candidates. This caused us to hold monthly written exams to keep a flow of candidates to screen.”
In the Oceanside Police Department, approximately 90 percent of applicants are disqualified quickly due to recent drug use (including marijuana), criminal history, driving records, poor credit history, inadequate employment record, dishonorable charge from military, bad reviews from former employers and unacceptable physical condition.
Of the remaining 10 percent of applicants, only a quarter of them will pass the psychological and physical fitness exams. Then after the academy, those who graduate have to go through approximately three months of field training, and several usually fail and get terminated due to not being able to safely handle themselves with the public.
“The standard for hiring is extremely high and most departments do not lower their standards to meet hiring needs,” Oceanside police officer Gary Philip Alexis said.
Typically, police departments do not have a preference between male or female candidates, or whether applicants attended a police academy or earned a bachelor’s degree. The Oceanside Police Department previously required applicants to have a bachelor’s degree, but that requirement has been lifted.
“Most of my fellow officers don’t even have a college degree,” Alexis said. “Most are prior military. I myself don’t have a college degree, just a high school diploma and six years of military service.”
Hunt believes a degree should not be required, however, he thinks candidates should have some level of formal education. Based on APD’s hiring practices, having graduated from an academy is not required.
“If someone has demonstrated the dedication and sacrifice, I do acknowledge it shows a level of commitment,” Hunt admitted. “Oftentimes, those struggling to get hired will put themselves through the academy so we don’t always get the best applicants with academy graduates.”
Another factor that affects interest in police agencies is the high risk of bodily injuries police officers face on a daily basis.
“Carrying the equipment alone takes its toll on a body, but then add physical altercations, caring for injured people, moving things out of the roadway, training, range, to name a few,” Hunt said. “Add in there the things police officers are exposed to on a daily basis: death, gore, violent assaults, sexual assaults, injured children, use of force, shootings, lawsuits, court cases, public scrutiny and policy, which also affect the well-being of our police officers.”
In the current societal atmosphere, police agencies are “willing to invest in rebuilding community trust, but some agencies fail to recognize the importance of simultaneously investing in their officers, only to have to scramble to do so after an incident reveals a hidden weakness or gap,” the Police Chief Magazine reported.
In December 2017, law enforcement veteran Congressman Dave Reichert ensured funding for the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Hiring Program for the Fiscal Year 2018. Funding for the program was pulled before Reichert’s efforts, according to U.S. Official News.
“The COPS Hiring program is vital to state and local law enforcement agencies. The program provides our communities with the much needed funding to hire law enforcement officers and meet public safety needs,” Reichert said at the colloquy on the House floor.
The COPS Hiring program has placed more than 129,000 officers in communities across the U.S. to advance policing and crime prevention efforts, Reichert said.
“Make no mistake; these officers are necessary for the safety of our neighborhoods, constituents, and loved ones.”
In Criminal Justice departments across college campuses, however, there is not a shortage of student interest. But, the correlation between those students and who make it into the police force is uncertain.
Hunt has taught Administration of Justice at a local community college in Southern California for over 15 years. Though there are many students in these programs, only a few are successful in the hiring process for police officers.
“Some decide on other aspects of law enforcement such as civilian positions, corrections, military, state or federal agencies,” Hunt said. “I don’t think there has been much change in that regard since I began instructing at the college.”
Senior criminal justice major and campus safety officer at APU, Luis Velasquez, hopes his degree will help him get a job as a cop after he graduates. He shared that the Los Angeles Police Department has 900 deputies, but each year they lose 500 to retirement, so they are always looking for good officers to hire.
“There are some agencies who will even have incentives for applicants, such as vacation bonuses or paid leave,” Velasquez said.
As the media continues to highlight police brutality cases, and applicants fail the hiring process, departments across the nation will continue struggling to hire worthy police officers.