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Iowa police agencies struggle to lure applicants
They stress retention, bonuses as fewer seek to be officers
CEDAR RAPIDS — When Major Gerald Hansel applied to become a Linn County sheriff’s deputy almost 33 years ago, he was one of more than 200 applicants competing for just a few open positions.
Now, as the Linn County sheriff’s second deputy, in charge of hiring for the department, Hansel said he’s lucky if he sees 20 applicants show up for testing.
“Back in the day, we all grew up wanting to be in this profession, whereas I think today it's not looked upon maybe in the same light. It’s not necessarily a career. It’s a job, and if it doesn't work out, they’ll move on,” Hansel said.
The Linn County Sheriff’s Office isn’t alone in struggling to find applicants. Law enforcement agencies across Iowa and across the country have been seeing application numbers decrease for years, with the change even more noticeable in the last few years.
Iowa City Police Chief Dustin Liston said when he was a new police recruit in El Paso, Texas, in 1997, there were thousands of job seekers during each application cycle. Even in smaller agencies in Iowa, it was normal to have several hundred about that time.
“Over about the last decade, that has really slowed down, and certainly over the last couple of years it's slowed down even more so,” Liston said. “So, we've had to become pretty creative in trying to remove as many barriers to the application process as we can, to make sure we get the appropriate number of applicants.”
Larger departments with more city resources, like the Cedar Rapids Police Department, aren’t having as much trouble filling open positions, but Cedar Rapids Capt. Jeff Hembera noted there have been fewer applicants to choose from in filling those roles.
“Like the rest of the country, our applicant pool has been smaller, but we're finding that in the end we're still getting good, qualified hires,” Hembera said.
Cedar Rapids Police Department Applications
|Testing date||Applications submitted||Applicants attending testing||Passed Physical and written test||Hired|
Local police departments are relying on ongoing strategies — and implemented new ones over the last few years — to attract more applicants and make the application process easier, including being more flexible with testing times and advertising sign-on bonuses for already certified officers.
There was a time when a single ad in the local paper would bring out hundreds of applicants. But now law enforcement jobs are advertised on Google, on social media and anywhere else the invitation to apply likely will be seen.
Linn County deputies have attended about 15 job fairs in the last year, and job advertisements are listed everywhere the Sheriff’s Office can put them, Hansel said. But when he asks applicants how they heard about the position, most are still coming directly from a job search on the Linn County website.
Marion Police Chief Mike Kitsmiller said his department has put together a recruitment team that has taken out Google ads both in and out of Iowa, hoping to attract applicants who already are certified police officers.
“We’ve been targeting areas where maybe people aren’t as law enforcement- friendly. We’ve shot some (Google ads) up to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Chicago area, to see if we attract any applicants from there,” Kitsmiller said.
Hiring someone who is already certified as a police officer is beneficial to a department both financially and in getting someone on the job sooner, Kitsmiller said.
When someone is hired who isn’t certified, he or she has to be trained in the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy for four months. In most police departments, the new officer then participates in field training to shadow another officer for four or five months — meaning it can be several months after a hire is made before the new recruit is out patrolling solo.
The department pays for the Law Enforcement Academy training and also pays the officer during training, so it’s cheaper and more efficient for a department to hire someone who is already certified.
If a new hire is a certified police officer in another state, the officer still must pass a written and physical fitness exam to become certified in Iowa, but doesn’t have to go through the Law Enforcement Academy.
The Cedar Rapids Police Department runs its own law enforcement academy from May until October, which saves the department between $8,000 and $10,000 per recruit, since it doesn’t have to send the trainees to Des Moines. But it costs the agency in employee time, since most of the instructors are Cedar Rapids employees, according to Hembera.
Wages and benefits
To persuade already certified officers to apply to work in a new department, many law enforcement agencies are offering bonuses.
Marion, for example, is offering a $15,000 bonus for officers who are already certified in Iowa, and a $10,000 bonus for officers who come from out of state. The officer receives half of this bonus when hired, and the other half after the first year.
The city of Marion is working on a compensation study for all city employees, including police officers, which will be used to make sure wages are in-line with other employers. The current starting salary for a new officer in Marion is $56,555 yearly.
Marion also recently switched to having 12-hour — instead of eight-hour — patrol shifts, which means that every officer gets a weekend off once per pay period. This has been attractive to new officers since scheduling is usually decided by seniority, and previously it would take 10 or 15 years on patrol before an officer starts getting regular weekends off, Kitsmiller said.
In Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, wages haven’t been increased beyond what is outlined in union contracts, but officers who are already certified are offered higher starting salaries than new hires who have to go through training.
In Cedar Rapids, certified officers can enter the department at a pay level consistent with the number of years of law enforcement experience they have, as if they had worked all those years in Cedar Rapids, rather than the normal starting wage — $30.71 per hour as of July 2023. In Iowa City, certified officers also start at a higher wage. As of June 2023, entry level officers will start at a yearly salary of $56,908.80, while certified officers will start at $70,054.40 and can receive a sign-on bonus of $5,000.
The starting salary for a Linn County Sheriff’s Deputy will be $66,541 per year as of July 1.
Some law enforcement agencies have also been working to make applying and testing easier for as many people as possible. The Iowa City Police Department has opened its system so applications are accepted all year-round, instead of only accepting them during a six- to eight-week period leading up to the scheduled testing dates.
“This last process we had, we set the date as March 10. So, any application that came in before March 10 would be eligible to test during that process. We would still accept applications on March 11, but they would be considered for the next testing process,” Liston said.
The Iowa City department has also become more flexible when it comes to testing days for the physical and written exams. The department used to have only one or two days set aside for testing each time it had a hiring cycle, but now Liston said the department works with applicants to have as many testing opportunities as needed to avoid conflicts with applicants’ schedules.
Iowa City Police Department applications
|Testing date||Applications submitted||Applicants attending written test||Applicants attending physical test||Applicants interviewed||Applicants added to certified hiring list|
“It's still a process, though, and what we've noticed is almost every stage of the process cuts the applicant group in half. So … say you had 100 applicants — which we haven't had for a long time — only 50 percent will probably show up to take the test, and of that another 50 percent fail it, and then you have the physical fitness test and another 50 percent fail that. Before you know it, your numbers are pretty lean,” Liston said.
Other departments have seen this same phenomenon.
Linn County Sheriff’s Office applications
|Testing date||Applications submitted||Applicants attending testing||Passed physical and written test||Extended offer of employment|
The Marion Police Department has increased its testing days as well, from only having one day to having two, usually on a Wednesday and a Saturday, according to Kitsmiller.
Marion and Cedar Rapids have also started offering practice test days about a month before the actual testing days, giving applicants an opportunity to prepare for the physical fitness test and receive some tutoring for the written test.
Each Marion applicant also is assigned to one member of the department’s recruitment team, which has six or seven officers and some civilian members. The recruitment team member will check in with applicants throughout the process, and sometimes invite them in for a ride-along to start getting to know the department.
“When they bring them in to do a ride along, it lets us see that person and deal with them a little bit and get to know them a little bit. And then it also lets the applicant know, is this the right department for me? Because there's definitely differences between here and other departments around here,” Kitsmiller said.
Retention and preventing burnout
Despite ongoing hiring efforts, departments are often still working at lower than capacity. Marion is operating at about 38 officers, even though it is cleared to have 48, according to Kitsmiller.
This can lead to excessive overtime and sometimes burnout, which can cause more officers to leave the department — or leave the profession entirely. Kitsmiller said he sometimes calls on investigators and officers assigned to a task force to join the patrol rotations, to avoid regular officers working excessive overtime.
Cedar Rapids is authorized to have 227 officers, but is estimated to only have 207 by the end of 2023, including 15 officers that were hired this spring and up to five more who will be hired.
Hembera said that he believes part of why Cedar Rapids hasn’t had as much trouble with hiring and maintaining a large staff is because it’s a large department with opportunities to try different jobs, which helps prevent burnout.
“We have all different types of opportunities within the criminal investigator division, within the community services division, within admin ops, even part time positions like becoming instructors for different topic in training,” Hembera said. “It’s kind of nice to have a little bit of variety.”
Retention of officers can be difficult, partly because of the competition between departments for hiring. It’s becoming more common for officers to transfer between departments, whether for the financial benefits, to be closer to family or other reasons. A few people leave law enforcement entirely.
“I don't know if it's due to burnout. I say that because some of them that have done that, they haven't been in law enforcement all that long. They’re younger people and they got into it and all of a sudden decided, this maybe isn't for me,” Hansel said. “So, they jump and get out of law enforcement and get into something else. But we’ve got a lot of people around here that have been here for quite a while, so I wouldn't say it's necessarily due to burnout. It's just, this is a tough job. It can be straining on you.”
The Linn County Sheriff’s Office is authorized to have 135 deputies, but is currently working with 126.
Most departments have a contract that new officers have to sign, stating that they will either stay with the department for four years or pay back all or part of the cost of attending the Law Enforcement Academy, or the sign-on bonus they received. This helps prevent a department investing money and time into training an officer and then immediately losing that officer to another department.
The Iowa City Police Department currently has 78 officers and is authorized to have 84. On July 1, its authorization increases to 85.
Despite the decrease in applicants, law enforcement agencies still strive to hire only people who meet the same performance standards that were required when the options were plentiful.
“We’ve not lowered our standards and we won’t. We would rather run short then hire officers who we don’t think are capable of doing a good job, which has put us in the predicament we’re in now,” Liston said. “Back in the day, 10 or 15 years ago, there would be people you would love to hire that you wouldn’t be able to hire because you had so many quality candidates. Now, if there’s someone we’d love to hire, we’re hiring them.”
Kitsmiller said that although the standards that someone has to meet haven’t changed, he has seen cases where someone who might not have been considered once upon a time has been hired. Last year, for example, an 18-year-old officer, fresh out of high school, was hired.
“She was probably the youngest person we've ever hired. She was exceptional and she's been a superstar since she got out. I don’t think 10 years ago she would have even been considered, because you want people to have that life experience, but she's been great,” Kitsmiller said.
Marion Police Department applications
|Testing date||Applications Submitted||Applicants attending testing||Passed physical and written test||Hired|
Hiring just for the sake of filling positions can be dangerous for the community, and can reflect poorly on the department if an officer isn’t qualified, according to Hansel.
“Let’s face it, our profession has been under scrutiny over the last few years. I think if we were to lower our standards and what have you, I think you’re just inviting problems. We truly try not to do that, and I don’t believe we have,” Hansel said.
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