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Police Departments Plagued By Recruiting Challenges


Even as the news is filled with questions about relations between police and the communities they are charged with protecting, many police departments are facing a much more basic question. They're having a tough time staffing their departments, specifically recruiting new officers.

DARREL STEPHENS: It's a challenging job. Police officers work around the clock. They're away from family and friends during some of those most important times. And so the pay is better than it's ever been, but for young people that have a lot to offer, they have a lot of other opportunities that have less stress and less challenges with the work-life.

MONTAGNE: That's Darrel Stephens. He's the former chief of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in North Carolina. He now advises both police chiefs and government officials at a time when some police departments have lowered qualifications to encourage more applicants. Yesterday on this program, we heard from the chair of the department of law and police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. She wants to set a higher bar for new recruits. She suggests police officers would be better prepared for the job if they were older, in their mid-20s, and college-educated and had acquired no misdemeanors. Chief Stephens agrees those would be dream candidates.

STEPHENS: She makes very good points. The more mature that someone is when they become a police officer - I mean, we ask them to do unbelievable things and intervene in people's lives at the most critical crises that they face. So a little older, a little more education would serve them well. But our world is such that if you have challenges recruiting people, 21 years old is what the entry-level requirement is for most police departments. I think there are still a few that hire at 18. But that's the ideal world. It's not an ideal world.

MONTAGNE: When you're dealing with a much younger and possibly high school-educated, maybe two years college, group of recruits, what kind of training are these folks getting to help them with what is a - as you've said yourself - a very complicated job?

STEPHENS: Well, in most of the larger departments, police officers will spend nine or 10 months of entry-level training before they're placed on the street to operate on their own. Most of them are on a year's probation after that. And so they receive very close supervision as they go about their responsibilities. And even though we have these instances where things go wrong - someone loses their temper or maybe a police officer makes a judgment that is inappropriate - there are literally millions of encounters between police officers and people in the public every day. Although they're tragedies when they go wrong, most of those encounters take place without incident, where people leave the encounter with maybe not a good feeling that they got a ticket but not a sense that they were disrespected in any way.

MONTAGNE: And I guess just finally, if you could have anything you wanted, what improvement or improvements would you make in police forces around the country?

STEPHENS: Well, I think we obviously need to continue to do as much training as we possibly could. You know, what people have failed to remember is that with the downturn of the economy, there are a lot of police departments that have a lot fewer police officers. So it's difficult for them to do the kind of community engagement that I believe is so critical to helping restore public confidence where it's been lost, helping people gain a sense of involvement in keeping their communities and their neighborhoods safe. The police cannot control society without the help of society.

MONTAGNE: Chief Stephens, thanks very much for joining us.

STEPHENS: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: Darrel Stephens is the executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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