‘We Had To Be Creative’: Police Departments Trying To Overcome Officer Shortage

ELKHART, IN — When Sgt. Taryn Lanzen walked into a brainstorming meeting about how to recruit more officers to the Elkhart Police Department, she asked the question: why don’t we have a recruiting video?

Her question sparked an idea in her boss’ mind and nearly 11 months later, Lanzen produced a 2 minute and 45 second video made up of all drone and GoPro footage.

Sgt. Lanzen asked several members of the Elkhart Police department of 126 to stage different scenarios showing their many specialties, interactions with the community and training.

“People know police do work,” said Sgt. Lanzen. “They see things on the street. But there’s so much that goes on scene or can be forgotten.”

What Elkhart is doing – marketing itself – is becoming increasingly common among local police departments who are fighting to fill empty spots. In the beginning of 2016, Elkhart had 19 openings; since then, they’ve filled almost all of those.

“It’s these things we really have to do to compete in today’s police market,” said Elkhart Police Chief Ed Windbigler, who took office in January.

Elkhart is leading the way on the marketing front; they ordered a polished recruitment station that they take to job fairs, and hand out unique USB drives to candidates that contain the officer application, benefit package, and recruitment video.

“It’s not like we have 500 people knocking our door down,” said Chief Windbigler. “But by trying to be the best place on the block…I think people see those things and think there are good things happening here – which there are.”

Elkhart is also capitalizing on social media; officials recently posted two safety officer positions and already received 25 applications after posting. Mishawaka, which has two officer openings, has also used Twitter to reach potential candidates.

But what may be even more surprising, is that all of the materials Elkhart used, were paid for out of existing budgets. In fact, none of the departments WSBT 22 talked to had a designated marketing budget.

South Bend Police Department, which is almost double Elkhart’s, launched a new website with easy access to recruitment materials. Chief Scott Ruszkowski touted its “interactive components” where applicants can access salaries, the application, and information on the selection process.

South Bend will be down 17 officers by the end of 2016, with 9 slated for retirement in the first quarter of 2017. The drop in numbers has forced Ruszkowski and his division chief, Jeff Rynearson, to think about their process.

“This is no one’s fault,” said Div. Chief Jeff Rynearson. “I think a lot of departments find themselves in this situation. Twenty to 30 years ago, the position recruited itself…What you find now is almost the opposite. We have to sell our department because we are competing against other departments regionally and then nationwide.”

South Bend Police rely on social media as a form of marketing and appear at military events, where they often find a quality pool of applicants, according to officials. Smaller departments like Dowagiac in Michigan are also fighting to add applicants.

In Dowagiac, they have 15 on the department with no openings; but, in the next 4-5 years, nearly 26% of the department is eligible to retire. Not only that, they find it difficult to compete with larger departments who can pay for a candidate’s way through the academy.

“When you come into a smaller department that has a much smaller budget, that’s difficult to do,” said Chief Steve Grinnewald. “We have staffing we have to maintain. Our public demands and expects a certain amount of coverage.”

Indiana and Michigan have different protocol for putting candidates through the police academy. In Michigan, it would cost Dowagiac approximately $17,000 to send through through the academy, pay for their equipment, and pay them while in training.

In Indiana, departments are responsible for paying the candidate a salary and equipment.

Who is paying what?

From the local departments that responded to our request for information, Elkhart city paid the highest to incoming patrolman and patrolwomen at $49,500. Warsaw Police followed at $46,000, South Bend and Kosciusko around $45,000, and St. Joseph County at $44,000.

Three Rivers Police Department paid incoming patrols an estimated $43,000, Walkerton at $40,000, and Dowagiac paid $39,000.

Several departments like Warsaw said they don’t do any marketing, but advertise with local and regional outlets as well as various online advertising. Elkhart County does not have any openings currently; they advertise in newspapers and at universities, use social media, work with the National Sheriff’s Association, and recruit through the Explorer’s program.

Three Rivers in Michigan also does not have any openings and primarily uses the MCOLES web site to list jobs.

Indiana State Police, who has their own academy, is down 79 officers.

“We do not do any marketing per se outside of attending job fairs, college career events and posting career opportunities to social media and the ISP website,” said a spokesman.

Perhaps one of the most fruitful efforts for Elkhart, who has filled all but a few of its 19 openings, has been its lateral transfer program. The goal is to attract officers with experience and offer them a higher pay.

For example, if an officer works with South Bend for 4 years, and gets hired in Elkhart, Elkhart may be able to pay that person at corporal pay – a higher pay – because of the experience level, even though said officer is not technically a corporal.

It’s a program that Elkhart’s Board of Safety approved, and that Chief Windbigler doesn’t believe is in existence anywhere close.

“Something is happening right here as far as recruiting because we are filling our holes,” said Windbigler. “Can’t do it overnight but we are getting there.”

From WSBT.com