Miami Facing Police Shortage, As Officers Retire And Hiring Drags On

MIAMI, FL &#8211 The Miami Police Department is short 84 officers — and city officials worry the gap will soon get worse.

The lack of officers has nothing to do with budgetary constraints or too few qualified applicants, Chief Manuel Orosa said. Instead, Orosa blames outdated hiring practices and administrative hiccups.

“If we were a public company, we would be fired,” said Orosa, who was tapped to lead the department late last year. “We would be deemed incompetent for not having hired new employees.”

In the last three years, the department of 1,070 officers has hired just 16 new cops, records show.

That trend could prove problematic over the next five years, when more than 250 officers are expected to retire.

Orosa has a plan for speeding up the hiring process that includes adding more employees to conduct background checks on job candidates. But the police vacancies have some city commissioners demanding immediate action.

“We’re about to hit a crisis,” Commissioner Marc Sarnoff said. “We’ll keep officers on patrol, but there will be fewer detectives, fewer officers on crime-solving teams. That’s going to lead to serious problems down the road .”

The Miami Police Department has been under a microscope since 2010, when officers were involved in a string of fatal shootings in the inner city. The killings helped lead to the ouster of former Chief Miguel Exposito and are now the subject of a federal civil rights probe.

Orosa has had to devote much of his energy to improving community relations, he said.

But at a recent city commission meeting, Sarnoff urged him not to lose sight of the staffing issue.

“I watched this engulf one chief of police; I’m watching it engulf a second chief of police,” Sarnoff said. “Don’t let this swallow you.”

Recruiting new officers is a slow and tedious process in Miami.

Applicants who have not worked for other police agencies must pass two exams: a state-mandated basic abilities test and a Miami civil service exam. Most South Florida departments require only the state test, and thus can move more quickly.

Compounding the slowdown: a 1977 consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice requiring Miami to advertise civil service tests three months before they are given and reach out to various community groups.

The tests are just the first step. Candidates who earn passing test scores must take physical agility and psychological exams. They also are subject to a background check. All told, the process can take three or four months.

Usually, only about one in 10 applicants will make it through the process and be offered a job, officials said. By that time, many will have accepted positions elsewhere. And rookie officers still must go through a six-month police academy. Officers’ starting salary is $45,929, according to the employment office.

Orosa said the department has the budget to hire the officers it needs. “The issues are with the delays,” he said.

Despite the shortage, Orosa said he has kept about 400 officers on road patrol. His goal is 420.

“Right now, nothing is really suffering,” he said.

But Armando Aguilar, president of the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the shortage has been palpable.

“Can you feel it on the street? No doubt,” he said. “Calls for service are holding all the time.”

Police spokesman Delrish Moss said the department hasn’t seen a change in the number of calls that hold. But Orosa acknowledged that moving forward, the department’s investigative and administrative units could suffer — and overtime payments could balloon. Though only two officers are expected to retire this year, 280 are enrolled in the state’s Deferred Retirement Option Program, known as DROP, and must retire by 2017, records show.

Aguilar predicts dozens more will leave if officers are asked to make concessions to help balance the cash-strapped city’s billion-dollar budget.

Andrew Scott, a Palm Beach County law enforcement consultant and former chief of the Boca Raton department, called the looming vacancies “a public safety issue of the first order.”

“Miami is a tough place,” he said. “Once the bad guys start to realize that the police department is understaffed, it’s going to be even tougher.”

Also in short supply: police dispatchers.

The department needs to add eight to the existing 20 to reach its staffing goal, Orosa said. But the hiring process for dispatchers is also slow and complicated, and training takes about 18 months.

While the department tries to fill the vacancies, the current dispatchers have been putting in long hours — and overtime has been adding up. Cost figures were not immediately available.

“We’re burning people out,” Miami Commissioner Frank Carollo said.

Experts say understaffed police dispatch crews can lead to longer response times.

“You have calls that might not be answered right away,” said Eric Parry, a public safety consultant based in Salt Lake City, Utah. “Dispatchers might not be as thorough when things get busy.”

The shortage of police officers will be partly mitigated this year. The department is getting ready to hire 20 certified officers from a hiring list created last year, Orosa said. Administrators also plan to launch a recruitment drive in coming months.

The chief is proposing ways to speed up the hiring process. He wants to eliminate the city civil service exam and add another two background investigators to help screen candidates. He also wants to see human resources create multiple hiring lists at the same time. Historically, HR has waited until one list is exhausted to begin building another.

Maria Haberfeld, who chairs the department of law, police science and criminal justice administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, applauded Orosa’s commitment to modernizing hiring practices. But she cautioned the Miami Police Department against moving too quickly and possibly hiring the wrong people.

“Given the history of the Miami Police Department, I would suggest they pay attention to standards and hire qualified people,” she said.

From The Miami Herald.