Police work looks good to many

Despite the sour economy, Raleigh and Durham are hiring -- and applications surge.

Staff WriterMay 5, 2009 

Recruiters at the Triangle's two largest police departments are enjoying the benefits of an unstable economy, but it may not last as Durham and Raleigh officials plan next year's budgets with millions less to spend.

Both police departments have received an influx of applications, so many that Raleigh police Sgt. Travis Keith may stop taking new ones. This is an anomaly for law enforcement, where departments usually have few decent candidates to choose from. Strict qualifications and higher paying private-sector jobs have kept most potential applicants away from police work. But current times have led many to reconsider wearing a uniform, badge and gun.

Last year at this time, Raleigh had received about 500 applications. Within the past year, though, the city , has received more than 1,000 applications for 52 positions. Durham, which averages about 170 a year, has already had 188 people test for 14vacancies. Officers in Raleigh, with 776 sworn officer positions, start out making from $34,281.59 to $52,793.64 based on experience, training and education. Durham has 512 officers who start out making from $33,000 to $40,404.

Unlike some agencies, both departments are hiring. About 63percent of the 233 agencies responding to a January survey by the Police Executive Research Forum expect their departments to face budget cuts. The survey also said more than half those agencies have implemented hiring freezes and reductions in overtime spending, training and purchasing new technology.

Durham has continued to hire because those monies were earmarked before the economic crisis, said Police Chief Jose L. Lopez Sr. Times like these enable police departments to hire great applicants who may not have considered police work before, Lopez said. With customized equipment, training and experience, cutting officers will cost a department more in the long run, he added.

"Law enforcement is always short of cops because in tough economic times you get rid of them and in good economic times you hire them, but the time it takes to hire them is so lengthy that you never catch up," he said.

Declining sales tax revenue and permit fees have made it difficult for municipalities, now setting next year's budgets, to sustain current spending. Durham has lost about $5.5 million, which has led to reduced spending and hiring freezes. Raleigh has about 200 vacant positions, and some capital projects have been delayed. On top of that, Gov. Beverly Perdue recently called for a 0.5 percent pay cut for teachers and state employees and 10 hours of unpaid leave.

Among Triangle agencies, Durham and Raleigh are expected to benefit the most from federal stimulus funds reserved for law enforcement, with Raleigh receiving $1.2 million and Durham $746,013.

Durham police believe the economy is partly to blame for the influx of applications. Advertisements on buses, in N.C. Central University's yearbook, on the Internet and on church fans have also increased their applicant pool, said Kathleen Koechling, the department's senior human resources consultant.

"We try to go from the heart more than trying to be slick," she said. "We use officers with real stories. We design our own materials."

This time last year, Keith, the Raleigh recruiter, figured he would have few applicants. That changed in August, he said.

Now his recruiters go to job fairs only when invited.

"We just don't have the time," he said.

Both departments are experiencing the same hiring rates as before -- up to 18 percent for Durham and 10 percent for Raleigh -- but have many more applications to go through. The recruiting process takes months, from screening applications to written and physical tests, background checks and interviews.

Then there's figuring out who really wants to be a police officer. Durham and Raleigh have received more nontraditional applicants, from those in their mid-30s and 40s to truckers, bank loan officers, real estate agents and the self-employed.

"There is absolutely no one single test that measures that heart," said Durham police recruiter Cpl. Ryan Freeman. "We can measure how fast you can do the 300 meter dash, how many push-ups you can do. We can test your intellect. But there's nothing that shows your commitment when you're directing traffic at 2 a.m. when its 15 degrees. You gotta have that commitment to get through those calls."

stan.chambers@newsobserver.com or 919-932-2025

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