The New York Times

September 23, 2000


City Short of Police Recruits as Job Loses Luster

By KEVIN FLYNN

In a striking illustration of the eroding interest in police careers, New York City has fallen far short of finding enough recruits to fill its next Police Academy class, which is scheduled to begin training in just a few days.

Recruiters will continue to try to find candidates right up to Friday, when the new class is scheduled to be hired. But with one week to go, the city expected to enlist only about 1,300 new officers, not the 1,589 it had planned to add to the force, according to police officials who have been told of the shortfall.

The officials said it was the first time in memory that the Police Department had been unable to fill openings for what has long been considered a secure, respected job, with decent pay and good benefits. In recent years, however, the luster of the job has dulled as public criticism of officers has risen and the pay scale has stagnated.

Interest has flagged despite unprecedented spending on advertising -- $20 million in the last two years -- to attract new candidates. Police union officials predict that if current conditions persist, the force will inevitably shrink. Police managers are concerned enough to be reviewing a host of measures to lure applicants, like allowing rookies more time to earn the 60 college credits required for the job, the officials said.

But a police spokesman said it was premature to discuss the size of the incoming class or any steps that might be taken to address the recruiting issue. ''While the process is going on, the department does not comment on personnel decisions,'' said Thomas Antenen, the spokesman.

New York is far from alone in its difficulty in finding new officers. Los Angeles, Chicago and Phoenix are among the dozens of American cities where police agencies have struggled in recent years to compete for candidates with a booming private economy that often offers safer, better-paying jobs.

But the problem in New York has grown particularly acute. The city is already facing a possible wave of retirements in the next five years when 10,000 veteran officers will become eligible to leave with full pensions. If a majority of those officers retire, as many expect, it will be essential to fill recruiting classes just to keep pace with attrition.

''If we don't make this class,'' said John Driscoll, president of the Captains Endowment Association, the union representing many supervisory officers, ''and we have no one signing up to take the tests, we will eventually reach a point where we will have no one to make up the shortages, and the department will have to shrink.''

In the short term, there is little danger New York will find itself with too few police officers. The 40,000-member force is already the largest in city history, with roughly 8,000 more officers than a decade ago. On a per capita basis, the department has 54 officers for every 10,000 residents, more than any other large American municipality, according to the city's Independent Budget Office. In fact, when the new class of rookies hits the streets after seven months of academy training, the force will grow to 41,000 officers at a time when the city is enjoying the lowest crime rate in more than three decades.

Still, the long-term prospects for police recruiters do appear daunting. For five years, the number of people signing up to take the police exam has been dropping. While 31,986 applicants signed up for the test in 1996, only 8,381 applied for the test last May. The next test, to be given in November, has drawn a meager 1,896 candidates, with only two weeks left in the application period. If history holds, as many as one-third of those who sign up for the test will not show up when it is given.

Given their predicament, police officials have not been pleased with an $800,000 ad campaign sponsored by the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association that has juxtaposed a graphic picture of a fallen officer with the message that officers are paid far too little. Police officers in the city with five years on the job now earn $54,000, a salary that lags behind that paid by Nassau and Suffolk Counties, where officers with equivalent experience earn $76,000 and $78,000.

''We did not create this problem,'' said the union's president, Patrick J. Lynch. ''But we are giving them a solution and the solution is to pay police officers a livable wage.''

Mr. Lynch, who is in the midst of contract negotiations, expressed concern that the city will lower standards for recruits as hiring becomes more difficult. Police officials countered that the current shortfall in recruits is evidence that the department is willing to forsake its hiring goals rather than settle for less-qualified candidates.

Certainly, if the city had been willing to cut corners, there were opportunities to make up the shortfall. Even today, there are tens of thousands of names on active Civil Service hiring lists for the position of police officer. All of the candidates have passed the police test in the last four years.

But officials said they found that thousands of the candidates did not meet the educational or physical requirements. Others had not reached the minimum age of 22. Many had dropped out of an earlier application process because they could not pass the medical or psychological tests. Still others had a past drug problem or criminal record that surfaced during their background screening. And thousands more had lost interest in the job or had found another position.

Even after police recruiters contacted 28,000 of these candidates by letter and telephone, the department fell nearly 300 short of its goal of 1,589 new hires, officials said. In March, the city had been able to completely fill the last academy class, which had 1,500 openings.

The new class of 1,300 could be winnowed further once the recruits get a taste of academy life. Typically, the department loses 5 to 8 percent of a recruit class because of resignations and terminations.

Other police departments that are experiencing recruiting problems of this magnitude have taken to searching across the country, to solicit interest from the broadest possible pool of applicants. New York has avoided such an effort, in large part because it is trying to attract more city residents, especially blacks and Hispanics, to take the test, with some success.

Similarly, New York officials have played down any talk of eliminating the entrance requirement of two years of college that was introduced by the department in 1996. Many police officials across the country believe that stricter entry qualifications have made it tougher to recruit at a time when accomplished people have such a variety of options in a sizzling private-sector economy. Several studies, however, have shown that college-educated officers receive fewer brutality complaints and take fewer sick days.

''Two years of college is not a panacea,'' said Jerome H. Skolnick, a professor at the New York University School of Law who teaches a seminar in police practices. ''It is a minimal requirement. Once you drop it, any concept of professionalism in policing is going to be discarded.''