Recent high-profile cases around the country involving allegations of improper professional behavior by police officers may be one factor impacting recruitment efforts for law enforcement agencies, a Vermont State Police captain said Wednesday.
"There's also some speculation that negative perceptions about police and policing also play into family members not supporting their son or daughter saying, "I want to be a police officer,'" added Capt. Ingrid Jonas. "You really need that family support to go ahead and make this type of career choice."
Jonas, who told necn she recently returned to Vermont from a national meeting of directors of police training and recruitment, said attracting recruits is a challenge departments everywhere face. She cited a "culture shift" as a prime reason, explaining people today just don't seem to be as interested in selecting a single career field and sticking with it for decades as they once did.
"Now, people may have nine or 10 jobs over the course of their career," Jonas said. "And those jobs may be in different fields. In the 'old days,' people would tend to stay in one job and one field for longer, I think."
Jonas told necn the Vermont State Police have been regularly operating at lower-than-full staffing levels for sworn members, because it has been hard to replace all the men and women who have come up for retirement.
"We're facing attrition rates that are highly troubling for our force," Jonas said, noting that over the next five years, it will be a significant challenge to replace retirees expected to step down after 20 or 25 years with the force.
Jonas told necn a full level of staffing for the Vermont State Police would be considered 327 sworn members. Currently, the number is 316, which Jonas said includes 13 new recruits.
To attract new personnel, Jonas said she is increasingly utilizing social media and web advertising as tools to tell potential recruits that law enforcement can be satisfying, provide good benefits, and leave officers with a real sense that they have helped others.
The Vermont State Police are also interested in receiving applications from people in non-police fields who may be looking to switch professions, Jonas said. "We're looking more and more at people from outside the 'traditional' law enforcement track," Jonas added.
Jonas acknowledged it has been a difficult time for law enforcement in recent months and years, with added scrutiny and blistering criticism of some departments that have been accused of improper tactics, including in cases where individuals have died in police custody.
However, Jonas said those cases do not represent the overall experience of a career in law enforcement, which she said far more often involves helping others and a constantly-changing variety of responsibilities.
While not a recruiting program, a junior police academy in Northfield, Vermont this week is exposing young people to what it's like to be a police officer. In sessions taught by members of the Northfield Police Department and other area agencies, kids are learning how officers place suspects in handcuffs, handle police dogs, respond to crash scenes, and operate in other real-world situations.
Officer Dan Withrow of the Northfield Police Department said in this time of increased scrutiny of police agencies, it is vital for agencies like his to form good relationships with the community, especially with young people. Withrow said his department wants to project an image to the public that it is helpful part of the community.
"I want the kids to come approach us if they have a problem, or if their friends or family have a problem. I don't want them to be scared of us," Withrow said. "Some of the kids who are here this week were here last summer, and it's great when they see us out in the community and wave and say 'hi Dan!' That's what this is really about."
"I knew a lot about cops before this program, but now I know even more about cops," said 13-year-old Jacob Burt, a participant in the summer program. "And if I ever do want to be a police officer, I can know a little bit more training than if I wasn't in this program."
The Vermont State Police said it is particularly challenging to attract a large pool of applicants that includes many female and minority candidates. Jonas said she is developing approaches to reach out to those potential recruits.