Hometown police face recruiting crunch


Gainesville Police officer Kevin McNiff searches for a vehicle driven by a reckless driver recently off Main Street. McNiff celebrated his one-year anniversary with the department this month.

JARRETT BAKER/Special to The Sun
Published: Friday, January 13, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 12, 2006 at 10:36 p.m.
In law enforcement recruiting, the bigger the agency, the fiercer the competition.
That's why some local police departments are having trouble competing with larger state and federal agencies for a limited pool of qualified job candidates.
The Alachua County Sheriff's Office, which pays $31,143 for starting deputies, has no problem finding applicants for sheriff's deputies. The problem is finding qualified applicants to replace deputies who leave for jobs at larger agencies, said Human Resources Bureau Chief Louise Grimm.
The agency lost about 20 deputies - 10 to 12 of whom left on their own accord and about six who retired - this year, Grimm said.
With four open sheriff's deputy positions, the Sheriff's Office is struggling to fill the slots as some candidates shop around at larger agencies, Sheriff's Office spokesman Keith Faulk said.
The same is true for smaller city and county agencies competing with the Sheriff's Office and the Gainesville Police Department to keep their officers from moving to the larger agencies where the pay is substantially higher, Faulk said.
"It's kind of like the bigger fish are eating the little fish," Faulk said. "It's hard to compete with state and federal agencies that offer more money and don't have the four-year college degree requirement (for upper ranks that) we have."
Faulk said the Sheriff's Office only considers recruits with either some experience or at least a two-year college degree. In order to advance into the upper ranks, deputies are required to have either a two- or four-year degree depending on the rank.
One of those "big fish" is the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in Tallahassee.
Tom Berlinger, spokesman for the FDLE, said the agency's reputation and the variety of assignments available to special agents is more attractive to potential candidates than the money. In fact, FDLE's starting pay is less than what some large police departments pay officers with a few year's experience under their belts, Berlinger said.
The FDLE paid a base salary of $43,177 for entry-level officers in 2004, but some city departments in Broward and Miami-Dade counties paid just as much and more, according to the FDLE's 2004 Criminal Justice Agency Profile.
One of the attractive assignments is the governor's protection detail, which may call for national and international travel, Berlinger said. But the detail also requires long hours and can be dangerous, he said.
Some FDLE agents choose to move up to federal agencies; others who have several years of experience with FDLE will look for high-ranking offices at sheriff's offices or police departments, Berlinger said.
Gainesville Police Department recruiter Cpl. Bill Billings said advertising and finding qualified applicants is a taxing job. Billings travels to career fairs at colleges, universities and police academies across the state to advertise department openings. Billings also relies on the Internet and law enforcement magazines to spread the word about GPD.
The Sheriff's Office has advertised its agency on billboards, movie theater ads, pencils and computer mouse pads, Faulk said. It also offers signing bonuses as an incentive for potential recruits.
"We do our dog-and-pony shows," Faulk said. "Recruiting is cut-throat."
GPD, which now has five openings for police officers, pays a base of $32,959 for non-certified officers and $36,201 for certified officers, Billings said. The salary increases if a job candidate has an associate's degree and climbs up more if they have a bachelor's degree, Billings said.
Fifteen of the last 65 officers GPD has hired have left the department to work for the private sector or at other agencies - a number which Billings said is about average considering the size of the department.
In addition, officers in the baby boomer generation are inching closer to retirement, Billings said.
"The individuals we're recruiting now are more educated about what they're looking for," Billings said. "It's not like 10 years ago when people were just looking for jobs. They want to know about benefits, retirement plans, hours, overtime pay and community demographics."
Homeland security concerns have prompted federal agencies to beef up their staffs, Billings added, draining the pool of applicants for local police departments and sheriff's offices. At career fairs, government agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Air Marshals and the Drug Enforcement Administration, which offer more comprehensive benefits and retirement plans than the city does to young recruits, are tough competition, Billings said.
"Older officers with experience have tested the waters elsewhere, so they're looking at staying on board here and raising their kids here," Billings said. "Younger (recruits) are not sure what they want and it's usually the first job they've ever had. So they'll test the waters for a bit and look for greener pastures elsewhere."
Deborah Ball can be reached at (352) 338-3109 or balld@gvillesun.com.

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