Northwest Indiana Law Enforcement Academy recruits pictured in 2018. Region police departments said their application pools have grown smaller in recent years for a variety of reasons.  John J. Watkins, file, The Times
Northwest Indiana Law Enforcement Academy recruits pictured in 2018. Region police departments said their application pools have grown smaller in recent years for a variety of reasons. John J. Watkins, file, The Times
Twenty-eight years ago, Hammond Police Department Lt. Steven Kellogg was part of a large group of young people who wanted to work in law enforcement.

“When I applied, there were like 1,200 applicants who showed up for the written test, and 8 of us were hired,” Kellogg said. “When we hired six months ago, we got 150 applications, a little over 100 people showed up for the test and we were able to hire 10 out of the 100.”

The national reputation of law enforcement has changed significantly over the last decade, causing the number of applicants to dwindle, and the Region is not immune. The root of the issue is complex, but research cites pandemic-era challenges, new ways of viewing career options and the murder of George Floyd in 2020 by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin furthering dislike of police, which some officers believe contributes to the staffing shortages.

A 2019 study by the Police Executive Research Forum surveyed agencies from 45 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada on retention and recruitment issues. Approximately 63% of respondents said the number of applicants applying for full-time, sworn-in positions at their agency has decreased slightly or significantly compared to five years before.

“It’s not the quality of candidates that have changed, it’s the number,” Kellogg said. “Twenty-eight years ago, the mindset was different.”

Staffing quickly and efficiently

Historically, the convention in the field of law enforcement was that an applicant would apply to a department and stay there for their entire career with the promise of a good pension upon retirement. Today, Kellogg said, many young people aren’t interested in working the same job for years.

“Law enforcement doesn’t really lend itself to job jumping that much,” Kellogg said.

Some officers have started jumping to other departments, however, with the introduction of lateral hires.

Many police departments in the Region have opened hiring processes for certified and non-certified police officers. Non-certified police officers are being recruited through emergency hiring, otherwise known as lateral hiring, which targets officers from other departments. Departments do this to staff as quickly as possible and often recruit officers by offering competitive salaries and benefits.

Lateral hiring took off in the police world over the last three or four years and has seen increased success over the last 18 months, according to a veteran officer with a local police department in Lake County. Departments will offer more benefits, higher pay and opportunities to encourage officers to join their teams.

Porter County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Benjamin McFalls said his department has not sought out employees through lateral hiring in the 13 years he has been with the sheriff’s office. New officers will be able to jump into positions quickly, as they will have already attended law enforcement academy, he said.

“Field training will be much shorter as well,” McFalls said in an email. “In turn, this means the new hire will be able to serve our community much faster than the standard hire, which at a minimum does not work Patrol on his or her own for a period of no less than six months, sometimes longer.”

The process of becoming a police officer involves numerous steps. Applicants must complete a preliminary application to the department of their choice, take a written comprehension exam and physical fitness assessment and get a background check. Some are required to complete an interview with the chiefs and local police commission. Candidates must also submit to a psychological exam and a voice stress analysis, Kellogg said. Some of these requirements differ slightly based on the department.

If a candidate fulfills the requirements, they may receive a contingent offer from a department and subsequently go to the academy. Candidates spend approximately four months in the academy and four months on the field, which could vary based on the department’s training requirements.

Kellogg said Hammond police are limiting the amount of time between the written exam, physical agility, interviews and background checks and increasing the frequency of hiring if deemed necessary.

“All the parts we can simplify and condense, we have,” Kellogg said. “We’re really trying to get them through as quickly as possible.”

Michigan City Police Chief Steven Forker said his department is doing the same as they attempt to fill positions as quickly and thoroughly as possible. Michigan City police are several officers short based on the number they’re budgeted for.

Forker said this is his department’s first year doing lateral hiring. Michigan City police hosted a written exam, physical agility test, interviews and began background checks for candidates Saturday. The hope is that by the time the background checks are finished, the department will be able to extend offers to lateral and new applicants.

His plan is to continue holding similar hiring processes every six weeks until the department is fully staffed. If they were already fully staffed, they would only do it two or three times a year.

Expanding the scope of recruitment

One of Forker’s focuses is promoting the department through different avenues, such as social media. His officers will be taking promotion photos in the next couple of weeks, something they haven’t done before.

“As police officers, we don’t always do a good job of getting the narrative out there of what we really do,” Forker said. “We’re trying to extend our reach beyond our typical audience.”

Kellogg said Hammond police are doing the same and are hoping for success.

“We’re trying to think differently,” Kellogg said. “We place an ad in the paper, go to social media, go to colleges and military recruitment center. They’re all good things, but it was never something we had to do.”

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