Want to carry a gun and a badge for a living?
Now is the time to apply. Valley law enforcement agencies scrambling for qualified applicants to fill roughly 600 open positions are sweetening their appeals with higher salaries, $1,500 signing bonuses and augmented benefits.
"I haven’t been in this particular job very long, but the people who have, said they have never seen such a tough market. We are all competing for the same applicants," said police Sgt. Jon King, Tempe’s recruitment officer.
"It’s kind of an anomaly," said Chandler police detective Brian Reed, whose job includes background research of applicants. "Normally, it’s been two positions and 500 applicants. Now it’s 500 positions and two applicants."
"We’ve even gone to testing every month for police officers right now," said Cindy Sawyers, personnel unit supervisor for the Scottsdale Police Department. "We are trying to make the process as friendly as possible so we can get them in the door."
It is, say recruitment officers, an employee’s market. After several lean years, Valley police departments have gained the budgetary means to add positions and fill those left open by attrition, including Phoenix, which is advertising for 300 new officers.
But the departments are hampered by a lack of applicants who, even if they meet the state’s stringent prerequisites, have to undergo a series of tests and background checks that typically take 90 to 120 days before they enter the rigors of the police academy, followed by field training.
Most will "wash out," whether on the financial background checks, on the physical fitness requirements, the written tests, the psychological evaluations or on the polygraph that ensures no one fudged on their history of illegal drug use, recruiters say. The goal is to bring in as many applicants as possible, because only a fraction will end up wearing a badge.
"We work very, very hard to get the best quality people because the public puts so much trust in their police officers," Sawyers said.
Competition for applicants has become so challenging that Gilbert is offering $1,500 bonuses to those who complete the process and $500 to any city employee who recruits a successful applicant. Mesa has reinstated previously cut benefits. And Scottsdale now offers a starting salary, beginning with the first day in the academy, of more than $42,000.
Mesa police Sgt. Arlene Heckel, who recently added another recruiter to her staff to help bring in 70 to 80 new officers a year, said they are trying to be more innovative — beyond increased postings on Internet job sites and recruiting on military bases.
"We are trying to look for new things. Because what we are finding is the job fairs and the things like that are not bringing in the people that we need," she said.
Reed said some of the best staffing sources for the Chandler department have been its volunteer and youth programs, as well as friends and families of current officers. The starting pay, he said applicants tell him, is not the deciding factor.
Many would-be applicants are unaware of minimum standards set by the state for officer certification. Besides having to be born a U.S. citizen, applicants cannot have any felonies or serious misdemeanors, cannot have used marijuana more than 20 times, and no more than five times since the age of 21 and not at all in the three years prior to applying. Hard narcotics, such as cocaine and methamphetamine, are limited to five "experimental" uses and no more than one after the age of 21.
"Arizona has some of the toughest disqualifies of anybody I’ve ever heard of," Reed said. "Some people show up hoping that for whatever reason they can get a waiver. . . . We do have those who come back with deception in their polygraphs."
Heckel said one measure to alleviate the applicant shortage is a proposed waiver of state requirements that officers from other states accepting positions in Arizona have to go through a police academy.
"A lot of officers don’t want to do that," she said.