Recruiting police officers used to be pretty simple, Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes recalled. Post an opening and watch the resumes roll in. The job, offering a solid income and a chance to serve the community, effectively sold itself.
“Everything was word of mouth,” he recalled. “We didn’t really have to do much. People wanted this job.”
But a strong job market, coupled with a heightened public skepticism of policing, has reduced the pool of candidates and has made it more difficult to fill vacancies, law enforcement officials say.
“This is a nationwide issue,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “Police departments, small, medium, and large, are experiencing significant decreases in applicants.”
A national survey of government human resources departments this year found that 32 percent had struggled to fill police positions, more than any other field. From 2013 to 2016, the number of full-time sworn police officers fell from almost 725,000 to just over 700,000, according to federal statistics.
The crunch has been felt acutely by smaller departments. In Pepperell, a town on the New Hampshire border with a police force of 16, the department used to receive about 100 resumes for every opening. Now it’s about one-third of that, Police Chief David Scott said.
“When I got hired in the mid-1990s, you were lucky to get a job,” he said. “Now it seems like a quality candidate can shop around and almost choose the department he or she wants to join.”
Police officials cite a number of hurdles to attracting candidates, including the inherent danger of the job, higher salaries in the private sector, and the widespread requirement to pass the civil service exam, which is offered every two years.
In recent years, protests over police shootings across the country have at times cast the profession in a harsh light, specialists said.
“The occupation of policing is under a microscope,” Wexler said. “It’s taken its toll. You don’t have to spend much time turning on the TV and seeing a video that makes the police look like they’re doing something wrong.”
The recruitment crunch is ill-timed, as waves of officers reach retirement age after long careers. Kyes said some of his veteran officers are staying on the job long after becoming eligible for their pensions, but their eventual retirements are still looming, and finding their replacements won’t be easy.
“Now it’s a little bit different,” he said. “Now there does have to be a marketing strategy.”
Direct marketing, in many cases. When Boston Police Department recruitment and diversity officer Michael Gaskins is around town, at community centers or career fairs or a barbershop, he will look for strong communicators around him. People want to work for the department, Gaskins said, but he still needs to put effort into finding the right candidates.
“If I see a young person — if they’re interacting with people in a positive way, I can give them my card and say, ‘Hey, I think you’d make a great police officer,’ ” he said. “It’s a special calling to be a police officer. It’s not something that anyone can do, and we want to make sure we have officers that reflect every corner of the city.”
The Boston department also recruits heavily from its cadet program, a two-year paid apprenticeship. Those who finish it and pass the civil service exam get a leg up on other applicants.
The cadet program is an effort that Cambridge, which has struggled to recruit new officers, hopes to begin this fall. Like other cities, Cambridge has also turned to local high school students as a potential pool of recruits.
On Aug. 5, Cambridge patrol Officer Oswaldo Ortiz called for 28 teenagers, many in matching blue Youth Police Academy T-shirts, to circle up.
Officer Sean Tierney brought out his black labrador, Tango the explosive detection dog, held up an orange tennis ball, and gave her a command — “Seek!”
The demonstration didn’t involve any real bombs, just the tools Tierney has to detect and disarm explosives.
They watched as Tango found a small tin the officers had hidden near a soccer goal. Then Tierney showed them how to work a remote-controlled robot, and one boy let Tierney test his field X-ray scanner on his bag.
“If I can get to one or two of these kids, that’ll be good,” Ortiz said. The youth academy began 10 years ago. Three graduates are now Cambridge officers, another is an officer in Worcester, and another joined the FBI, Ortiz said.
A few of the teenagers in the city’s youth academy want to follow in their footsteps. Adnan Ibrahim, 19, graduated from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in June with hopes of becoming an FBI agent, and Jahmaya Adamson, a rising senior at Rindge and Latin, wants to be a “lawyer for injustice.”
“So this gives me a head start,” she said.
Marcus Collins, 21, first met police officers who coached in a night basketball league he played in as a teenager. A career in law enforcement has always appealed to him, he said.
“My uncle is a detective in Malden. He always inspired me,” Collins said. He saw that his uncle’s job paid well and provided benefits, and he liked the idea of “helping everybody in the community and being able to serve a purpose.”
This year, Collins graduated from Westfield State University with a degree in criminal justice and passed the civil service exam. He took a summer internship with the Cambridge Police Department, helping with the youth academy, going to community events, and meeting higher-ups in the department.
“It just furthered my desire to want to be in the police force,” he said. “A lot of my friends want to be officers. Five, six of us took the [civil service] test together. So, hopefully, we all go to the academy together.”
With the teenagers was Grant Baker of Cambridge, a toddler who wants to be a police officer when he grows up. It was his 4th birthday, and to celebrate, his parents, Chris and Lindsey Baker, let him dress up in a navy blue uniform with an oversized hat and visit the station.
His parents called him Officer Baker and told him to say hi to his colleagues — real, uniformed officers who smiled and high-fived him. One jokingly handed Grant the keys to his cruiser. Grant stood by his big brother Christian, 9, and shyly hugged his mother.
“He’s a little star-struck,” she said.