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Competition for recruits driving new strategies and financial incentivesKevin Johnson
In the battle for police recruits, Phoenix essentially has declared war on Los Angeles. And Phoenix police Sgt. Tony Lopez isn't about to apologize for it.

With about 500 vacancies to fill and Phoenix virtually "tapped out" of prospective officer candidates for its 2,969-member force, Lopez went to Southern California recently to launch a $300,000 media campaign aimed at attracting dozens of applicants in the Los Angeles Police Department's backyard.

Phoenix's sharp-elbowed plunge into California became one of the most aggressive law enforcement recruiting campaigns in the nation at a time when dozens of police agencies are trying to fill thousands of positions left vacant by years of local budget cuts and continuing attrition.

Phoenix bought ads in the Los Angeles Times and spots on cable television. But what really caught the attention of Los Angeles police was Phoenix's slick brochure, which promised officer candidates the chance to own their own homes -- such as the Mediterranean-style beauty shown on the brochure -- if they were willing to leave California for Arizona.

"L.A. is the one place in the country where we can compete with the cost of housing," says Lopez, referring to the high real estate values in the Los Angeles area, where the median home price of about $475,000 is nearly twice the median in Phoenix. "L.A. has serious quality-of-life issues. (Los Angeles police recruiters) cannot be happy we are in town."

Los Angeles police Cmdr. Kenneth Garner acknowledges that new officers in Phoenix, who make $39,332 a year, can afford bigger homes than new officers in his city, where rookies are paid $51,114. But Garner, whose department is looking for hundreds of new officers, then jabs back. He says Los Angeles officers "could buy the state of Arizona when you retire."

Such battles for police recruits are being waged across the nation by departments that are starting to get money to add officers. There's no clearinghouse for job postings at the 16,000 law enforcement agencies in the USA, but at least 80 departments were listed recently on a popular law police website,, where agencies sought candidates for an array of jobs.

Making the pitch

Among those seeking officers was the New Orleans Police Department, which lost an estimated 250 officers to desertions and resignations in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Since the storm, the department also has become the subject of a federal investigation into allegations of abuse stemming from the videotaped beating of a 64-year-old man by officers last month.

In an unusual appeal for help that was posted on the jobs website, the New Orleans department acknowledged its troubles and urged applicants "to be part of the solution and not a part of the problem."

Other police agencies are trying to attract recruits by highlighting increased pay, bonuses and other temptations.

For years, Lexington, Ky., Police Chief Anthany Beatty says, his department's ability to attract top-flight recruits had been hampered by salaries that couldn't even compete with those on the police force at the University of Kentucky in town.

That changed last fall, Beatty says, when the city boosted the starting salary for cops to $34,000, up from $26,000. Beatty then began a campaign to add 200 officers to his 540-officer force. He says he needs more officers because of the recent boom in commercial and residential development in the city of about 300,000.

Lexington officers are eligible to get up to $7,400 for down payments on homes in areas designated for redevelopment. In their off hours, Lexington officers also are now permitted to use department vehicles for personal business. Officers pursuing college degrees can receive up to $1,200 annually in tuition assistance, a benefit that has been adopted by several departments.

"We've become more competitive" in recruiting officers, Beatty says. "But we also understand we're competing for candidates in a very competitive ... market."

Honolulu police Detective David Do says his department is trying to recover from the loss of about 200 officers who retired three years ago. That why Do, like recruiters in Phoenix, has recruited in other cities.

Honolulu officers recently signed up dozens of recruits in Portland, Ore., and San Diego, and Do is considering trips to Denver, El Paso and Las Vegas. However, Do says, "finding good people is getting harder because it seems like (other police departments) are all out there with fishing poles in the same pond."

The starting salary of $37,500 for rookie cops in Honolulu, one of the nation's most expensive places to live, makes Do's job difficult. "All the talk about beaches and the sunshine can only take you so far," he says.

Stressing the cost of living

The competition for recruits has never been more intense in Phoenix, where Lopez has made the prospect of homeownership -- rather than the work associated with being a police officer -- the focus in his recruiting pitch to Californians.

Lopez acknowledges that the $300,000 home on his department's brochure would be well beyond the price range of a rookie officer in Phoenix. Even so, he says, a Phoenix rookie can afford much more house than a peer in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles police officials aren't impressed. "I saw that (brochure) and thought it was a pretty good strategy," Los Angeles police Lt. Art Miller says. "But if it's so great in Phoenix ... why are they coming over here to recruit?"

*Fierce competition, 1A

November 11, 2005
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