Like police forces across the country, the Walla Walla, Wash., Police Department is working overtime to recruit and retain officers as the last of the baby boomers get set to leave the ranks.
Police here can retire at age 53 and many of them choose to do so. As baby boomers serve the tail end of their careers, it leaves a void of experience for police departments. But there are other factors as well, making recruitment and retention of police, and to a lesser extent fire and EMS, a challenge.
The Walla Walla department has 47 officers, 17 of whom are at least 50 years old and close to retirement. Many or all of those of age will call it a career.
“Police and fire, it’s not a young man’s game,” said Sgt. Kevin Braman, a Walla Walla Police Department spokesman. “If you look at the average age of offenders on the streets, it’s in the 20s. Guys are working into their 50s and sometimes 60s so it becomes a challenge.”
It can take almost a year for a new recruit to go through the training and then get up to speed and even then, replacing a veteran officer with a new recruit comes at the cost of experience on the street. The process of going through the police academy and field training takes months and some don’t make it all the way through.
“It’s one of those jobs where you have to pass a physical test and a written test and then have an oral interview,” Braman said. “It’s demanding.”
To compound the problem, there have been fewer applicants for these jobs in recent years as well. “Yes, there’s a significant exodus from baby boomers and the national narrative on police hasn’t been very positive, which doesn’t make the career field that exciting for a lot of people,” said Ed Medrano, president of the California Police Chiefs Association. “Couple that with the fact that the economy is booming in a lot of sectors and a lot of people are looking at alternatives to public service.
Also, the standards for hiring “don’t necessarily align with societal standards,” Medrano said. Difficulty maintaining employment and drug use are barriers for a lot of people. Officers are also choosing to retire as soon as they can because of the national perception.
Walla Walla deputy fire chief Brad Morris said the situation is a bit different for the fire department but that they are always training and working on recruitment and promotion. Eight of the 47 in the fire department are in their 50s, making the situation less critical.
Morris said that’s just how the numbers turned out but that fire, like police has seen a decrease in applicants over the years. “It seems the quality is not as good as it used to be,” he said. “We are constantly training, and everybody is always in the process of bettering themselves and learning the jobs above them,” Morris said.
Braman said his force has been planning for the exodus for four or five years, by continuing to test recruits and offer lateral testing for officers from other departments. Those experienced lateral transfers cut way down on the time it takes to get a trained officer on the street. The department is also streamlining the application process to make the process less cumbersome while still maintaining standards.
There are ways to enhance the recruitment of new officers such as going to high schools and cultivating potential future officers and developing programs for kids that educate them on the career and how to prepare for it.
“We’re a little unique in that you can’t go to college and learn to be a police officer,” Braman said. “It’s on-the-job training and training at the police academy, so when we hire somebody it takes close to a year before they’re out on their own. That’s a unique challenge.”