The number of people applying for law enforcement jobs has declined steadily in recent years, both across the nation and in the Chippewa Valley.
Chippewa Falls Police Chief Matthew Kelm said the department’s latest hiring process netted approximately 45 applicants for four positions. Of those, 35 moved on to the second step of the process, a written test to assess logical reasoning, reading ability and communication skills, among other things.
Kelm said these numbers are a “lot less than normal.” Typically, they get more than 60 applicants for one position. Years before that, it was even more.
“When I was hired 15-17 years ago, it was over 100 (applicants) for one spot,” he said. “We did our written test at the middle school and had the entire area filled with people.”
Those days are gone, though, and Kelm doesn’t expect to see them come back.
The department filled all four positions from those 35 people who applied, with the last officer hired set to begin Dec. 20.
Alhough the number might be less, Kelm noticed one positive thing about these applicants.
“For whatever reason, I don’t know if we got lucky or if it’s a trend, but the candidates we did have were pretty high quality,” he said.
‘A national crisis’
In other parts of the nation, departments aren’t getting so lucky. In areas on the East Coast, police departments are relaxing age-old standards for accepting recruits, from lowering educational requirements to forgiving some prior drug use, to try to attract more people to their ranks.
“We have a national crisis,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York City police officer and now a lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “For the first time in my life, I would say I could never recommend the job.”
There is no national standard for becoming an officer; it’s left up to each state to set requirements.
The Chippewa Falls Police Department closely follows Wisconsin’s standards, some of which include 60 college credits and having no felony convictions.
On top of that are physical fitness standards that have long been academy graduation requirements. Even after graduation, recruits often face a background check that might include a credit-history review.
“Hiring is particularly problematic in this environment we live in,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a police research and policy organization. “I’ve been in a room with a large group of police ... I’ve asked how many of you would like your son or daughter to be a police officer, and no one raises their hand.”
That may apply to larger departments in bigger cities, but Kelm doesn’t have that mindset working in Chippewa Falls. He wouldn’t trade his job for anything.
“There’s a lot of local support for our police officers,” he said. “The only time we feel (fear) is when we turn on the TV (or) log onto Facebook. That’s where we see negative stuff. It’s a tougher time because of that perception, but the job is the same.”
Police departments are trying different ways to tackle the lack of applicants.
In Wichita, Kansas, Police Chief Gordon Ramsay is working to relax some standards, saying it will help officers relate better to people they encounter.
“People who have struggled in life ... can relate better to the people we deal with,” Ramsay said. “My experience is they display more empathy.”
In Arizona, the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Board adopted new guidelines to allow for prior use of Adderall, often used to treat attention deficit disorder or as a study aid, if the use was not extensive.
Education requirements were changed in Louisville, Kentucky, where police recently set aside a requirement for at least 60 college credit hours after seeing a steady decline in applications. In the past fiscal year, applications for the force dropped to 1,081 from 1,867 the year before, said Sgt. Daniel Elliott, the agency’s commander of recruitment and selection.
In just a month since it was scrapped, the agency received so many applications — 667 — that it had to stop accepting them to ensure it had time to properly review them, Elliot said.
In Chippewa Falls, Kelm doesn’t believe lowering standards is the answer.
Rather, it’s about re-examing the requirements and using science-based practices to make sure what’s required is accurately measuring the recruit’s ability to become an officer.
“Like for the physical agility portion, are we having people do what’s necessary for the job or are we losing people on a specific test who would still be qualified for the job?” Kelm said. “Make it a scientific test so we’re getting good people and not getting rid of people for not a scientifically-valid reason.”
Officers still need to be fully qualified, which means Kelm has no plans to lower standards. He thinks that would lead to an even bigger problem down the road.
“We can’t hire someone to solve a 1-2 year problem and end up with a 30-year problem,” he said. “These are the people backing our officers up on calls. Ttheir life could depend on the person we choose and train.”
Chippewa Falls police have pushed harder to get the positions publicized by using social media and contacting colleges to make sure students know they are hiring.
Lack of women, minorities
Another problem police departments are having is in recruiting women and minorities. Kelm said it starts before police departments even come into the picture, when students are in college and choosing what they want to do with their lives.
In that respect, it’s up to criminal justice departments to recruit and remind students the job is about making a difference and helping people in the community, no matter their age, gender, orientation, race or otherwise.
Eric Anderson, director of Chippewa Valley Technical College’s criminal justice program, said enrollment numbers at the department have actually gone up in the past couple of years. The department is now back to the capacity it was a few years ago.
“It seems when the economy is on the decrease, enrollment numbers increase,” Anderson said. “When people start being laid off, losing their job, that’s when they tend to seek further education in the tech field.”
However, just because a student goes into the program doesn’t mean they want to be a police officer. Anderson sees students in all areas of the field.
“The focus is on law enforcement, courses are geared that way, but we’ll find a lot of students here want to transfer to a university, or get into probation, parole or corrections,” he said.
Police departments can help, too. Kelm said it’s important to reach out toward minorities and women who do show an interest in criminal justice and advocate to them.
He attended an outreach program at McDonell Central Catholic High School and spoke to the students about how valuable having those groups of people are to the department.
“Maybe the people we’re talking to aren’t going to apply for 10 years, but you’re building a workforce for the future,” he said. “We’re only ever going to hire the best person for the job, whether they are male, female or whatever. But we want that to be them.”
“When I was hired 15-17 years ago, it was over 100 (applicants) for one spot. We did our written test at the middle school and had the entire area filled with people.” Matt Kelm, Chippewa Falls police chief