The New York Times

May 17, 2002

Police Dept. Reports Jump in Applicants


Dhe number of applicants to take the exam to become a city police officer has risen to more than 35,000, nearly three times as many as applied for last June's exam. The Police Department attributes the sharp rise in part to a new system that allows applicants to register on the Internet.

About half the applicants, 17,651, used the Internet to file for next month's exam. The department said the large increase would enable it to find replacements for the large number of officers retiring.

The surge is a welcome sign for the department for other reasons, as well. The precinct station torture of Abner Louima and the death of Amadou Diallo in a hail of police bullets made it more difficult for the department to attract recruits. The police union's public complaint about low starting salaries also hurt.

There was some change in recruiting in the aftermath of Sept. 11. The heroic acts of officers vastly improved the department's image, and as the economy dipped after the attack, the prospect of a stable job with a secure pension and benefits package became more attractive.

Those gains were offset, though, as thousands of officers decided to retire after earning large amounts of overtime that sharply increased their pension benefits. (Pension calculations are based on officers' earnings for their last year on the job.)

Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, alarmed by the retirement rate and disappointed that only 6,000 candidates showed up for a police exam in February, expanded recruitment in other states and on military bases and appointed an assistant chief to supervise recruiting efforts and to report directly to him.

Allowing applicants to file for the exam online — at /home.html — is simpler, but it is unclear whether those applicants will be as committed to pursuing a police career as past recruits have been. Before the department's system went online in March, the only way to apply was to get an application — usually at a police station or a recruiting fair — fill it out and mail it back with a $35 fee. That fee was rescinded last year in an effort to attract more applicants.

So next month's exam will measure whether the higher application rate actually produces more officers for a city in need, as well as test whether the department has hit upon a new, cost-effective way of expanding the recruitment pool.

Even with the recruiting problems, the number of applicants had slowly crept up over the last two years. Altogether, 8,617 signed up for the May 2000 exam, 12,122 for the December 2000 exam, and 12,929 for the exam the following June. The number dropped again early this year while the department continued to hemorrhage officers, at so fast a rate that today, it is left with 37,465 officers, the lowest level in five years. Its highest level was 40,710.

The increase in applicants is only one sign of a renewed interest in law enforcement careers, police officials said. In the last two months, 1,979 other people have taken the test at walk-in locations around the country, including 373 who took it May 11 at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

At that forum, police recruiters had to turn away more than 700 people because there were not enough seats; most of the applicants were not students but local residents in need of work. Fifty-nine people signed up for the June test in a recruiting drive at Columbia, 29 applied at Yale, and 78 applied at New York University.

What remains an open question, however, is how many of the 35,689 people who have signed up this time — the highest number since 57,888 applied in 1993 — will actually show up when the three-hour exam is given June 8 at about a dozen city high schools.

In prior years, only about half of those who had applied showed up on test day. Of those, about 75 percent got a passing grade of 70 or better. Only 1 in 10 of those who pass are found suitable to hire. Many are rejected because they cannot meet the educational criteria — at least 60 college credits are required — or do not meet the standards for physical or psychological fitness.

About a quarter of the online applications have come from other states and from many foreign countries, including Canada (25), Australia (7), and France, Italy and Ireland (2 each). Clearly, many of those applicants will not make a long and expensive trip to New York.

Even if only half the 35,000 applicants arrive on test day, it would be the largest number to take the exam in nearly a decade. If past trends hold, that could provide a pool of nearly 1,800 recruits, said Chief Rafael Pineiro, who was the assistant chief appointed by Mr. Kelly to take charge of recruitment and who has since been promoted to chief of personnel.

Some in the police union, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, said the high number of applicants was short of what was needed because the pay scale is driving hundreds of officers out before retirement age. Some skeptics, for example, have criticized the department's efforts to recruit at elite universities because, they say, such college graduates could earn far more than the $31,305 annual starting salary for a city police officer.

"What good is spending money to recruit and to train, only to have the successful candidates leave for the first better-paying job that becomes available?" said the union president, Patrick J. Lynch, through a spokesman. "That money would be better used to pay New York City police officers a salary that will keep them at the N.Y.P.D. Otherwise, New York City has become the nation's job fair for police officers."

In part because of the Internet, however, the current recruitment drive cost $2.8 million, when other, far less successful campaigns cost $10 million.

Nearly 60 percent of the current applicants are members of minorities, who have typically had more college credits than white recruits. That higher educational level, Mr. Kelly said, undermined any notion that the department might have to lower its standards to attract minority candidates.

Alexander S. Ford, the chief executive of PoliceOne, a law enforcement technology company in San Francisco, said that very few police departments have Internet recruitment systems, though some allow Internet users to print an application form and mail it in.

Saying the New York department was ahead of the trend, he said he was working with the police in San Francisco and Oakland in developing a system to allow Internet users to file applications online and to communicate with the departments electronically.

Thomas M. Sharkey, a doctoral student at Columbia who signed up for the police exam after he was laid off from a job in private business in December, said that despite the low starting pay, he was one of many young people with a newfound sense of public service after witnessing the heroism police officers showed on Sept. 11.

"I guess the pay is not a lot to start out," said Mr. Sharkey, 31. "But what is more important to me, and especially since 9/11, is a sense that I want to contribute to other people, and that I have a civic responsibility to help others."