ALBANY, NY — The city is looking to attract a large class of police officer candidates to start training in October, but challenges to policing and hiring must be overcome to help fill the vacancies in various units of the Albany Police Department.
Some fear that by the end of the arduous process not enough will graduate — and the department will remain understaffed.
Recruitment challenges aren’t unique to the capital city. Law enforcement agencies nationwide must adjust to changing views of the profession and career aspirations of young professionals.
“Recruitment with police officers is a national issue. There is a whole host of reasons for it,” said Eric Hawkins, Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan’s pick for the city’s next police chief. “Some of it has to do with the image of police officers today, some of it has to do with now unemployment is low and young people can get jobs in other industries.”
Hawkins, who serves as chief of a suburb outside Detroit, Mich., said 30 years ago, departments were looking for a “macho” and “very dominant” individual who could give and take orders, but that persona doesn’t work with young people anymore.
And with a focus on 21st Century community policing, a domineering personality may not be the best fit.
“It means a lot of marketing and branding … changing the type of officer we’re looking to recruit,” Hawkins said. “We’ve got to shift how we’re marketing ourselves to young people across the board to make this an even more attractive profession to get into.”
The Common Council has until early September to confirm, or deny, Hawkins’ appointment. If the council votes against the appointment, Sheehan must make another pick. If they miss the deadline, Hawkins appointment is permanent.
Officers recognize the appeal of being a cop has dwindled, but Albany Police Officers’ Union representatives say increasing pay and considering candidates outside the city borders could help expand the pool of those who qualify.
Of the 493 who took the civil service exam late last year as the first of many steps to becoming an Albany cop, 224 were city residents. The city only sent out canvass letters to city residents, of which there were 197. Just over 100 of those contacted responded by the deadline.
Many of them will be weeded out through mental and physical health exams as well as a physical fitness test.
Couple that with the next chance of a new list of candidates coming every two years, and it leaves Albany with a small pool of people to hire from.
“We’re losing out on a ton of qualified people by limiting it to just city residents,” the union’s vice president Greg McGee said. “It all boils down to city residency requirement and the fact that we’re the lowest paid compared to surrounding agencies (yet) have the highest call volume.”
Preference could still be given to city residents, but canvassing individuals who may live in nearby communities would provide the department with more options, McGee said.
For example, the city of Schenectady considers applicants from Schenectady, Albany, Saratoga, Schoharie and Montgomery counties.
“This isn’t something the union has raised with us,” said Brian Shea, Sheehan’s chief of staff, when asked about adjusting the residency requirement. “If they do, we are happy to start the community conversation.”
City officials say Albany has only canvassed from the resident list since 2014 and has never exhausted that list before a new one is processed.Pay also weighs heavily on an aspiring cop’s decision on where to apply, and if they’ll stay, McGee said.
While Albany’s entry level officers make $52,826 when they start – slightly more than neighboring Guilderland’s rookies – within four years, police in Guilderland surpass Albany. Albany cops make $66,032 in their fourth year, while Guilderland police make $81,751. State Police academy graduates start at $71,712.
Albany officers have had an expired contract since the end of 2013. Unable to reach an agreement, the union and city went into arbitration for 2014 and 2015. Earlier this year, officers received a 1 percent increase for 2015 and nothing for 2014 through the arbitration award, which cost Albany roughly $600,000.
“We’re not keeping up with the pay scale of other surrounding agencies,” McGee said. “That comes down to the fact that we don’t have current contracts. We’d like to see our contracts negotiated in a timely manner, that’s one way to alleviate the financial burden on the city.”