With recruiting for law enforcement agencies getting tougher throughout the nation, the La Crosse Police Department is looking into new ways to attract quality officers.
The department worked with the police union to develop a lateral transfer agreement, which will go before the La Crosse Common Council Thursday for approval, that lets officers with experience at another agency receive higher compensation and more vacation time than they otherwise would starting out in La Crosse.
“We’re seeing the same trends in Wisconsin that everyone else is seeing nationally. We have a lot of vacancies and not a lot of applicants to fill them,” said interim Police Chief Rob Abraham.
There just aren’t as many people looking to join the public safety field, he said.
“The level of interest in law enforcement has certainly taken a hit because of the national media, the things that happen,” Abraham said.
The department has four vacancies as of this week and has 24 applicants for those positions. There are 99 sworn police officer positions in the department.
“We used to have 80 to 100 applicants,” said council member Doug Happel, who also is a member of the city’s Police and Fire Commission, which oversees hiring of police officers and firefighters.
“We’re still getting really good people, but we’re not getting as many, so we need to do what we can,” Happel said. “This is a nice idea that the department and the unions collaborated on.”
Replacing officers who leave can take up to 12 months, depending on the newcomers’ experience and whether they already are certified by the state of Wisconsin.
It takes roughly four months to go through the process of soliciting applications to offering someone the job. After a candidate is chosen, if it’s a newcomer who isn’t certified, that person needs to spend six months going through training at a technical college to get certified, then another three months of field training with a La Crosse officer.
“It’s going to be a nine-, 10-month process, even after we give them the job offer, to get them out on the road in a squad car, handling calls,” Capt. Jason Melby said.
“The fewer officers you have on the schedule, on a shift, because of academy training, because of injuries, because of FMLA, that just puts a bigger burden on the staffing that’s there,” Abraham said.
The department typically has eight to 10 officers out working in the city at any given time, not including investigators and neighborhood resource officers.
With the department being understaffed, they’re spending more time responding to calls and less doing proactive police work, supporting the department’s community policing efforts.
Ideally, Abraham said, their time is split more evenly between their duties.
The department also is running into a retention problem, Melby said.
“It’s tough enough to recruit and get people through the door, but the other thing we’re finding is that the retention aspect of recruitment is very difficult,” Melby said.
Today’s young adults have a different mindset than previous generations, he said.
“They come into a field and almost as a level of exploration to see if it’s something they want to do with their career. We invest significant time and effort in getting them trained up and getting them on board, and they decide to pursue different career avenues,” Melby said.
Either that or they end up moving out of the area.
“This memorandum is really trying to help us get a leg up on the market as far as attracting already-sworn officers,” Abraham said.
Their focus is attracting people who are moving to the area because a family member got a job here.
“One of the things that’s hard to do when you’re at a law enforcement agency and you build up your years of service is give those up and start back at the bottom when it comes to vacation time,” Abraham said.
The city previously had a lateral transfer program that allowed people with more experience to come it at a higher rate of pay. This proposal will add more vacation time to sweeten the deal.
For example, if an applicant had six years of service at another agency and then is hired in La Crosse, “They would come here on Day 1 having six years credit toward their vacation accrual,” Abraham said.
Happel said recognizing the previous experience puts the city in a better position for recruiting.
“It gives us a greater opportunity to attract officers from other departments — experienced officers as opposed to brand new officers,” Happel said.
Abraham added that it will help the police department with its other goals, giving them a leg up when it comes to recruiting women and minorities.
“Those are things that are at the top of our priority list, and this is just another tool to help us do that. We really need those tools,” he said.