Police leaders thinking 'outside the box' to lure new recruits

OAK HARBOR, Wash. -- Police departments across Washington state are seeing a shortage in the number of recruits, and it's now forcing police chiefs to think "outside the box" if they want to fill their rosters.

"We're in dire need of people -- and qualified people," said Oak Harbor Police Chief Ed Green, who is trying to fill four positions.

The combination of a candidate shortage and retirements has forced Green to shuffle officers within the department. For example, Community Service Officer Jennifer Yzaguirre is now working in patrol to fill in for people who retired.

"You want to find somebody who will not only fit your agency but fit the community. We're an island community so people need to want to be here," Green said.

Green believes the lack of candidates is partly related to an aging population, lack of interest in law enforcement and fewer qualified candidates. He said many pass the written and oral tests but fail the background check because of criminal history that often includes drug use or theft.

"People make mistakes. We get that. Not a problem, and some of those we can forgive but some of those the law won't let us forgive," Green said.

Oak Harbor is not alone in this recruit shortage problem. According to Mitch Barker, Executive Director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, some agencies in our state are seeing reductions as high as 50 percent in the number of people showing up for state testing.

"The job's not for everybody, for sure. It does take the right people and I think I would rather have the right person in uniform rather than just somebody in uniform," said Ofc. Jed Cates of the Burlington Police Department.

Mt. Vernon Chief of Police Jerry Dodd said his department is also struggling to find the most qualified candidates. He said some of the candidates who test struggle with polygraphs, and psychological and medical suitability.

Some believe fewer people are interested in law enforcement because there's more pressure on officers from outside scrutiny, it's become a more dangerous and violent profession, and the shift work is hard on families.

"I think it's kind of a new challenge for law enforcement," Green said. "It's a whole new era of recruitment and we're trying to figure out how to recruit for this."

If the shortage continues, Green will develop a retirement plan to keep officers longer so there's no gap during recruitment.

"There's got to be a passion to do it. You have to want to do this," he said. "It's more of a calling than it is a job or a career."