Police chiefs: More than a year to find, train new officers

HB1253 requires new hires complete basic training requirements within two months.

Police recruits are being hired around the county, filling vacant spots left by an aging generation. Just don’t expect to see them on patrol for about a year.

The law currently allows a six-month window for newly hired officers to complete their 720 hours of basic law enforcement academy (BLEA) training. House Bill 1253 could change this — decreasing this time span to two months and potentially speeding up the training process.

Supporters argue this “long” deadline has contributed to strain on police departments across the state and that this is one facet of a multi-prong issue. A public hearing on the bill in the House Committee on Public Safety was held Jan. 21.

BLEA backlog

An ongoing issue in law enforcement is the backlog of officers awaiting BLEA training at the Burien Criminal Justice Training Center as well as at the facility in Spokane. In some instances space has been is so limited that officers have waited months before getting a spot in a class.

One cause of the backlog is the large swarm of baby boomers transitioning from the work force into a life of leisure. The “silver tsunami,” as it’s been dubbed by some, is already having an effect on the U.S. economy and infrastructure. This generation as an entirety will be older than age 55 by 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We see this across a multitude of different agencies — baby boomers have had an impact on every single industry…Our hospitals had to grow when they were born. They had an impact on elementary schools all the way through. Now they’re getting into retirement age,” Rep. Shelley Kloba of the 1st Legislative district.

Kloba is one of the sponsors of the bill and an advocate for solutions to policing issues.

The police force is not spared from these repercussions, Kloba said. The aging out of veteran officers means more new hires have flooded into BLEA to replace them.

Compounding this issue is a lower number of classes graduating officers than what’s needed to keep up with new demands.

“This is all part of it,” said Bothell Police Chief Carol Cummings. “They have not been funding enough classes for the last several years. This causes this backlog of people waiting and it gets to be larger and larger, you know?”

The Bothell Police Department (BPD) faces a predicament. The Bothell community passed a public safety levy last fall, allocating funds for 13 new commissioned officers. And more 40 percent of officers in Bothell will be eligible to retire within the next five years.

“Put those two things together and you can see we’re focused on reducing the amount of time any where we can to get officers hired and trained and on the street,” Cummings said. “The academy wait time is one of those things we’re anxious to reduce as much as possible.”

Cummings said recently the wait hasn’t been long. Her two new hires Amanda Rees and Dan Wiseman will be starting at the academy shortly. And she hopes that trend continues.

The Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission website outlines BLEA course openings and shows seven classes happening so far in 2019, according to the schedule. Each of these classes can hold 30 students. If a shorter deadline is approved, supporters hope the state, in needing to meet this new requirement, will allocate more funds to the academy for more classes.

Lengthy applicant process

When compared to other hiring processes, there’s a long vetting procedure for new potential officers in the state, Cumming said. Add in a national narrative that has been less than favorable to police officers, and it becomes harder to recruit for policing jobs.

Just last month, four Houston police officers were shot while serving a warrant. One responder sustained a knee injury.

“People read about that,” Cummings said. “I find this work incredibly valuable and important…but others going into it, there’s a lot more of a hesitancy than there used to be.”

For those who apply for the position, there typically comes oral interviews, a detailed background investigation — in which an applicant fills out a detailed personal history that a detective follows up on — a polygraph test and a psych evaluation.

In Bothell, before this process begins, applicants must go through public safety testings. This includes a written test and a physical fitness exam. Depending on how the applicant scores on these determines if they make the cut to proceed in the process.

“By the time we get to that point where we got a job offer, it will be several months,” Cummings said. “Even if we try to push it as quickly as possible.”

And it’s only after they’ve been hired that an officer can put in a request for the academy. If there’s no room, they’ll be added to the waitlist for training.

Even after completing the academy, most departments still require additional training on the field, taking several weeks to orient officers to their sectors. Gradually, officers are allowed more responsibility with a field trainer — tasked with showing the new academy graduate the ropes. At Bothell, this means three to five months of personalized training on top of what’s spent at the academy.

Cummings’ department has even tracked how many days it took to get an entry level up and running from the time of a vacancy.

“Five hundred six, 427, 257,” she reads aloud from her document. “Eight hundred twenty-one days — I had a recruit that didn’t pass probation and we started back to square one.”

Cummings added, “You get the sense that it’s easily a year to a year and a half before you get an officer out on the street. Any way we can reduce that time is incredibly important.”

Fiscal impacts of waiting

While they wait, police recruits are paid, on average, $7,000 a month of salary and benefits, Kloba said. The 2019 Seattle salary schedule shows that police recruits for the city make $28.99 an hour or $5,044 a month. And recruits entering the police academy begin earning benefits within 30 days of hire.

Some preliminary training may happen with new hires as they wait — a firearms orientation, getting to better know their communities. Sometimes they’re put on desk duty.

“These individual recruits are being paid…and don’t contribute to those minimum staffing levels of 24-hour policing,” Kloba said. The financial burden falls on cities to foot the recruit salary bill, she said. It doesn’t cost the state anything.

“We’re trying our best to get training ahead of the academy but the reality is it’s not the same,” said Mercer Island Police Chief Ed Holmes. “It’s just not the same as the training they get post academy where they’ve been trained and now they can apply what they’ve learned to what we’re teaching in the field.”

Hiring competition

Not paying recruits during their waiting period is simply not an option.

“When we hire somebody in today’s job market, it’s hard to find good qualified candidates,” Holmes said. “When we find one, we want to hire they right away. If I don’t, the next agency will.”

Cummings echoed this sentiment.

“Last several people I interviewed were all interviewing at other departments,” she said. “It’s a real competition for quality people.”

Another option for filling vacant spots is hiring lateral officers — those with more experience who are already serving in other jurisdictions.

National competition for experienced officers — driven by high turnover and a low unemployment rate — has led to huge sign-on bonuses in Seattle and other large police departments. On Jan. 31, Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan proposed a $15,000 hiring bonus for officers coming from other departments, according to a news release.

In Seattle, officers hired from another department participate in a shorter academy training and field training program within the Seattle Police Department, the release continues, and are deployed five months sooner than entry-level officers. This results in salary savings for the department.

The Everett Police Department offers a $15,000 hiring incentive and the Renton Police Department, a $10,000 incentive. The Bellevue, Bremerton, Tukwila and Bainbridge police departments all provide a $5,000 hiring incentive.

Cummings admits that some of these positions are filled with out-of-state candidates, but that it’s common practice for officers to first work at smaller agencies for a few years, before moving onto larger departments that offer these monetary perks. This practice includes in-state officers.

“Who does that hurt? That hurts smaller agencies,” Cummings said. “Smaller agencies are the least likely to be able to handle a vacancy and don’t have as many people to cover. Plus that means they’re left having to pay for an entry-level to go to academy and wait those months.”

Added strain on those picking up the slack

Holmes said money is one concern related to the academy waitlist, but the bigger worry for him is exhausted officers working mandatory overtime when not enough officers are available to cover policing shifts.

Holmes is the chair of the SafeShield Committee of the State Association of Chiefs of Police. The group addresses all things officer safety related and goes well beyond the bullet-proof vest. Talks often touch on officer resilience — and the ability to maintain an officer’s resilience from hire to retire, he said. Mental health plays a big role.

Suicide rates among police officers are on the rise. In 2018, about 160 officers nationwide took their own lives, according to numbers compiled by Blue H.E.L.P., a nonprofit that works to reduce mental-health stigma tracking these numbers.

Cumulative stress, from little work downtime, can impact an officer’s mental wellbeing.

“People need their time away from this line of work,” Holmes said. “If they don’t get that or don’t get as much, that is my concern.”

Holmes said these impacts are shared across the state and that other states incorporate different training models. In some states, recruits will self sponsor themselves, in other states, recruits with two-year degrees require just three weeks at an academy. In Washington, recruits can’t go to an academy without first being hired.

“I think what people in Washington need to understand is how remarkable our state is for what they require police officer training to be…What they must pass is very rigorous,” Cummings said. “That should make people in Washington feel very proud of the expectation.”