Michigan law enforcement struggles to lure recruits

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Roseville Police Chief James Berlin remembers a time when, about a decade ago, more than 200 people might apply for two or three positions at his department.

Michigan State Police Sgt. Dwanye Gill, left, assists Aaron Stephens, of Detroit as he prepares the civil service test during Michigan State Police’s minority recruiting seminar last month at Second Ebenezer Church in Detroit.

Today, he has seen fewer than 25 candidates on hiring lists for twice as many openings, and estimates at least half were unqualified or failed to pass stringent background checks.

He’s not alone. Other policing experts are calling the shortage a crisis that could affect communities for years.

“We have to do something, especially for the future,” said David Harvey, executive director at the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards, which oversees professional guidelines for officers statewide. “I think we’re at a crisis situation with the staffing at our agencies right now.”

That leaves little hope that Berlin’s force can climb to 75 spots. To find the top applicants, his staff has tapped police academies, colleges, job fairs, even plastered banners on busy Gratiot Avenue. There also are plans to team up with advocacy groups and explore another avenue “we never would have dreamed of five years ago,” Berlin said: sending alerts on social media.

“We’re going to beat the bushes wherever we can,” the chief said. “We’re going to do whatever we can think of to reach out to anybody that might be interested in a position with us — more so than we ever have in the past.”

Dwindling benefits and the rising number of attacks against police nationwide don’t help recruiting efforts, experts say.

Harvey’s group estimates Michigan law enforcement officers — including police, sheriff’s and tribal — have fallen steadily since 2001, when 22,488 worked. Through Oct. 31, that figure dipped to 18,399.

“Those were reductions due to the economy: significant reductions in revenue sharing and property taxes went down,” said Harvey, a former Garden City police chief and city manager. “Some places, people moved out. You add that up and there’s a loss of revenue into the communities for cities to pay for those services. So they had to cut somewhere.”

Some agencies no longer can afford to pay for potential recruits to attend at least 594 hours of police academy training, which can cost more than $5,000, said Robert Stevenson, executive director at the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police. Meanwhile, some benefits have also “been slowly whittled away and totally removed in many police departments,” he added. “A traditional pension is pretty much nonexistent. A lot of the inducements we put out there to attract people to the profession are no longer there.”

The jump in shootings or targeting of police nationwide, such as the five officers slain in Dallas last July, also casts a pall. The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund recently reported firearm fatalities of law enforcement officials increased 56 percent to 64 from 2015 to 2016. Of those, 21 died in ambush attacks.

3 high-profile losses in region

Metro Detroit recently experienced three high-profile losses. In November, Wayne State University K-9 Officer Collin Rose died the day after he was shot in the head in Detroit. In September, Detroit police Sgt. Kenneth Steil succumbed to injuries days after being struck around his bullet-proof vest by a shotgun-wielding suspect. Another city officer, Myron Jarrett, 40, died in a hit-and-run crash Oct. 28 while helping a traffic accident investigation.

“I don’t know if I would even choose that path today,” said Jim Paul, who grew up in Metro Detroit and spent nearly 30 years with the Michigan State Police before retiring in the 2000s. “It’s totally different than when I came in. I’ve never seen police officers targeted for assaults and assassinations like what’s going on today.”

James Tignanelli, a former Fraser patrolman and president of the Police Officers Association of Michigan, sums it up: “The job has gotten unattractive. That’s made it harder for us to hire people.”

The Howell Police Department in Livingston County has spent several months promoting two officer positions yet found only about 13 applicants, Chief George Basar said. “Some years ago, when I advertised for one position, I got 115 applications. … We’ve made the conscious decision that we’re just not going to settle for whomever. We’re trying to find the right fit for our department.”

As the pool shrinks, many police administrators notice diminishing quality in potential recruits for positions in Metro Detroit that generally start out at close to $35,000, Tignanelli said.

Candidates face a host of steps before becoming certified. According to the minimum state licensing standards published by the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards, they must pass physical fitness, vision and hearing tests as well as comprehensive background investigations covering school and employment records, home environment as well as personal traits and integrity. That means disclosing arrest and expunged convictions, law violations and personal protection orders.

That can shrink the field of candidates, Harvey said. “You put an ad out for two or three police officer positions, you get 25 people applying and half of those aren’t passing the initial background investigation because they have something on their record.”

When fewer recruits materialize, that means cops are stretched thin to cover communities.

Basar estimates his force has lost four full-time positions as well as 13 part-time and reserve officer spots in the last decade. “We struggle internally in the department, and when you’re short-staffed, then that equates to additional overtime shifts and hours for the staff that’s there, which also takes a toll.”

In Sterling Heights, the Police Department is down to 149 sworn officers from a peak of 172 in 2002, Chief John Berg said. Since then, officials eliminated a Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program as well as “non-essentials,” he said.

The agency is pushing to hire officers to replace those who are slated to retire through next year. To help fill the remaining 20 spots by early 2018, his staff has been crisscrossing Michigan, Berg said. “It’s been 25-plus years since we’ve done this active of a recruitment. Someone went out personally and met with young people in the police academies and criminal justice programs around the state and talked about what our department has to offer.”

Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon laments the nearly 200 open positions at his agency — which means overtime for his deputies, who often risk exhaustion.

Since last year, the department has had a staffer coordinating recruiting efforts full-time to reach hires at churches, community groups, fraternities and sororities. A new co-op study program has also launched through the county community college, the sheriff said. “We’re doing everything that we can afford to do at this point, but it’s still a challenge.”

Macomb County Sheriff’s officials also are working to spark interest in positions there by searching job fairs, college campuses and other venues, Sheriff Anthony Wickersham said. “Monthly or bimonthly we’re out there. Our people are talking to them and telling them the benefits we have.”

Positions are going wanting in Oakland County, as well, where Sheriff Michael Bouchard hopes to fill about 25. To help net more job seekers, he’s reached out to military members as well as contacted private and charter schools about efforts geared toward preparing youth for law enforcement jobs. His office also is expanding a social media presence.

“We’re looking for people who see this as a calling,” he said. “We want to offer the community the best of the best.”

Recruiting requires new tactics

Snagging the best recruits means fresh approaches.

The Detroit Police Department, which this fiscal year hired more than 150 people, has placed its applications online, pursued a college intern program and expanded field recruiting, said First Asst. Chief Lashinda Stair.

Officials also plan a forum focused on female employees — a demographic the agency works to grow compared to other cities, she said. “It’s absolutely critical to continue to recruit because we have so many different initiatives. … We want to continue to put as many people on the ground as possible because we all know that in order to continue to bring people here to Detroit to work, live and play, we need to make sure that the city is safe.”

Michigan State Police, which counts 1,065 troopers, is continuing to recruit and plans to be at the Detroit North American International Auto Show in January, First Lt. Michael Shaw said.

On a recent Saturday, MSP personnel shared insight on training, experience and career opportunities during a minority recruiting seminar at Detroit’s Second Ebenezer Church.

Among them was Arthur Bridgeforth III, a Wayne State University student. The 21-year-old long has eyed a career in law enforcement and loved hearing stories from his late uncle, a former Detroit cop. News about violence against officers, reduced benefits and other issues won’t dissuade him from his goal of serving the public and hopefully changing perceptions, he says.

“I have a strong passion for it and that’s what I see myself doing,” he said. “Sometimes you have to be the change you want to see in the world. I just hope to be that change.”