All it took was a couple of ride-alongs with a Seattle police officer to help Steve Smith discover his destiny.
He was working in a group home with abused children when he got a first-hand glance at life as a police officer.
“There was a lot of stuff I liked about my job,” Smith said. “I came to work, I worked with people, I helped people do a lot of problem solving. When I rode along with my friend I saw that he did a lot of the same things I did, in addition to the police work. It looked like a fun career.”
From there, Smith became one of many applicants who seek to join the law enforcement ranks. He applied for positions, passed the written and physical tests, then went through group interviews and background checks that could make privacy advocates tremble with fears of Big Brother.
“The application process was really long,” he said. “It took a lot of patience to get through it all.”
It took Smith about a year after he first applied to get hired by the Mill Creek Police Department. During that time, he was subjected to a background check that included a criminal records seach and interviews with his friends and family. Mill Creek even checked his credit report.
“You’re given a lot of responsibility and trust by the community,” Smith said. “They’ve got to check everything.”
Once he passed all those requirements, he was hired and was off to the state police academy, where he finished first in his class. He’s now patrolling Mill Creek on the graveyard shift.
However, people like Smith, who can meet the high expectations demanded by police agencies, are becoming harder and harder for local departments to find.
Lots of openings
Mill Creek currently has three officer openings, and it’s not the only one with positions available.
A survey of eight police agencies in South Snohomish and North King counties shows that, as of mid-January, only Lake Forest Park is fully staffed. The number of openings range from one each at the Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace and Brier departments to 25 with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.
“I can’t necessarily say that there is a shortage of candidates, but I will say that there appears to be fewer qualified candidates than in years past,” said Edmonds Police Sgt. Don Anderson, who in the past year has been trying to fill seven openings in the 56-officer department. “The competition between neighboring agencies for good candidates has been tough.”
Mill Creek Police Chief Bob Crannell knows firsthand of the competition for good officers. He lost four of his officers in a six-month span in 2005, two of whom left for other agencies, while a third went to work for a private company in Afghanistan.
“We’ve been deficient in full staffing since late March 2005,” Crannell said.
A similar situation exists at the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.
“It’ll take a year to hire (25) people,” Sheriff’s Office spokesman Rich Niebusch said. “We have a very comprehensive process, and it takes a long time to get through it.”
A local exception is in Shoreline, which contracts with the King County Sheriff’s Office for police services.
“We typically advertise throughout the Sheriff’s Office when we have a vacancy and make our selections once we review and interview each of the applicants,” said Shoreline Police Chief Tony Burtt, who’s officers are commissioned Sheriff’s Office deputies. “We always seem to have plenty of deputies seeking to fill our positions.”
The hiring process can vary, however, depending on how much background investigation is necessary.
“Some candidates have resided locally their entire lives and have very little work history,” Anderson said. “This type of background wouldn’t require any travel and the employer interviews would be minimal.”
However, if an applicant is working as an officer out of state, the background investigation takes longer and can involve a member of a local department traveling to conduct background interviews.
Many try, few succeed
It’s not that Crannell hasn’t tried filling Mill Creek’s open positions.
In 2006, he said he brought almost 100 candidates to group interviews. Out of all those interviews, he hired four officers.
“There’s no shortage of applicants,” Crannell said. “It’s when they get to the background check, they’re having great difficulty getting past that. We look at their traffic history, their prior drug history, their credit report. They have to jump through all those hoops.”
The state sets minimum standards for police officers with individual departments adding their own additional requirements.
Edmonds used to require candidates to have a degree from a two-year college or the equivalent. The department dropped that requirement in order to expand the candidate pool. Still, most Edmonds applicants already have bachelor’s degrees, Anderson said.
Nonetheless, it’s still tough for those who want to become officers to actually end up commissioned.
“There are several things that disqualify candidates and most of those are uncovered during the interview process and the background investigation process,” Anderson said. “The polygraph examination and the disclosures candidates make during that process also weed out many unqualified applicants.
“Dishonesty is a big one. An officer’s credibility is his biggest asset and we will not tolerate liars. Any dishonesty at any phase of the process will result in automatic disqualification. Drug use and poor recommendations by previous employers are also common disqualifiers.”
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also make it tough for police to fill available openings.
“Massive deployment of military resources also reduces our number of interested applicants,” Anderson said. “They’re either already deployed, ready to be deployed or are having their discharges delayed.”
A strong economy also affects departments.
“When things are booming in the business world and job opportunities abound for new college graduates, our level of interest goes down,” Anderson said.
In Mill Creek, a department with 20 commissioned officers, the unfilled positions have a major impact.
“The community wants to see officers in their neighborhoods,” Crannell said. “That’s what we call undirected work, where an officer isn’t doing reports or responding to a call. But when you’ve got a shortage of officers you don’t have a lot of time to do undirected work.”
A lot of days, Mill Creek only has two officers patrolling the city. Ideally, Crannell would like to hire enough officers to where he can have four officers on the street plus a sergeant on duty on any one shift. He’s hoping to get into a position where three officers can be on the streets at any given time.
Edmonds faces similar problems.
“Unfilled positions in a department leads to more overtime, stretched resources and services that aren’t provided to the highest level,” Anderson said. “Our primary objective is to staff patrol shifts and to assure that we have adequate coverage on the road for patrolling and responding to emergencies. Sometimes this results in calling officers in on overtime or juggling schedules.”
Growth aggravates the situation for local agencies. Mill Creek grew by 32 percent last year following a large annexation. The number of calls officers there responded to also increased by 31 percent from 2005 to 2006, with the department responding to an average of 32 calls for service each day. The department, meanwhile, only received one additional officer position when the annexation was complete. In Mill Creek’s recently completed two-year budget, however, the department received authorization to hire an additional officer, a sergeant and a detective.
Departments may be having trouble filling spots, but no one’s willing to reduce their standards just to have more bodies in uniform.
“We’re not going to shortcut anything or settle for a lesser candidate,” Anderson said. “Departments only end up paying for such actions later. In the same vein, we will not shortcut our background investigation process or eliminate any of those steps in the interest of beating another agency to a qualified candidate. The process is just too important too reduce in scope or to take shortcuts.”
“It was worth every minute,” Smith said of the lengthy process. “Being a police officer is super, super fun.”