'How do you sell this job?': Police recruitment declines in some Pa. cities, flourishes in others

"People say no one wants to be a police officer today because of social justice unrest, but you have to look at the bigger picture," says Chief Howard Burton


By Lacretia Wimbley
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH — Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated in April 1968 when Penn Hills Police Chief Howard Burton was hired as a police officer for the Penn Hills Police Department.

It was 1969 when the new officer joined the force — a year into a series of riots and protests that erupted in Pittsburgh following King's death. Pittsburgh was one of hundreds of cities in America that experienced fires and casualties that resulted from the outcry. Hundreds of businesses in the Hill District, Homewood and on the North Side were vandalized.

Fast forward 52 years to the death of George Floyd at the hands of ex- Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, which similarly sparked national unrest, this time in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic.

To be a police officer today is no different than in 1969, according to Chief Burton, although recruitment has significantly declined at his department over the years.

But perspectives vary in how large a part the coronavirus pandemic and calls for social justice have played in recruitment and retention issues in the Allegheny County and Pittsburgh Police departments. Calls for social justice in the midst of the pandemic last year had varying effects on police recruitment across Allegheny as numbers significantly declined for the Allegheny County Police Academy and at the Pittsburgh Police Training Academy, while smaller boroughs like Rankin saw little to no impact due to ongoing retention struggles.

"Way back when, when I got hired in 1969, we were right in the middle of civil unrest," Chief Burton said. "'They called us pigs, we were spat on, but we got through it. In the early 90s [the Penn Hills Police Department] had around 300 people taking a recruitment test. Most police departments had larger numbers showing up for tests to be policemen back then."

"People say no one wants to be a police officer today because of social justice unrest, but you have to look at the bigger picture, it's really a generational issue," Chief Burton said. "Many people just don't want to help anymore."

There was no major change in recruitment during the pandemic compared to before, Chief Burton said. The biggest change the department endured was altering class sizes for recruits' physical agility test. Instead of having everyone show up at one time, the department scheduled up to six people at a time. For the written exam, they made sure students were spaced at least 6 feet apart, Chief Burton said.

The Penn Hills Police Department hires three to five people each year. Budgeted for 53 officers, the department currently has 49 officers on staff. Chief Burton has headed the department since 1999.

"For me as chief of police, I have to go out to these kids [when recruiting], and I tell them they have to work holidays, they can't see their family, you may get shot — How do you sell this job?" he said. "It's not really a job. It's a calling. It takes a special individual to do this type of work."

Pittsburgh & Allegheny County

According to Allegheny County Police Academy Director Lt. Robert Synan — who has spent a combined 27 years as a county officer and Pittsburgh police officer — retention is a current issue for county police, with 12 officers having retired in the last year. Smaller borough police departments in the county are having a tough time with recruitment right now — a national trend for academies due to a decline in applications, Lt. Synan said.

"The pandemic hurt us, there is no question. We had to shut down for 10 weeks," Lt. Synan said. "In this last group of applicants this year, we're probably back to where we normally are. The pandemic hindered things we do with [county police officer] training, and a lot of special arrangements had to be made.

"Recruiting is difficult, and Penn Hills just gained two new officers in their last recruitment class. I know Chief Ryan Wooten had issues getting folks down in Rankin. It's harder for them to retain folks."

At the height of pandemic, classes at the Allegheny County Police Academy had around 11 people, Lt. Synan said. Now, county academy police classes — which take place in January and July for about 23 weeks each — are back at 32 people per class, the usual average, he said.

According to Pittsburgh police spokeswoman Amanda Mueller, once graduated, Pittsburgh Police Training Academy students are automatically recruited into the police force. March 2020 class numbers were lower due to the pandemic, and due to COVID-19, there was only one class last year. A June class was postponed and then canceled this year. Monthly applications and testing have decreased significantly, Ms. Mueller said.

A date for when another class will be hired has not been determined, but it is not likely to be this year, city police said.

Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert said law enforcement agencies across the board have experienced a decline in recruitment the past five years. He said the pandemic and resulting economic hardships continue to have an impact on the applicant pool for many professions.

Law enforcement is "not immune from that," Chief Schubert said. Recent calls for social justice has contributed to general police recruitment decline, he added.

"Unfortunately, [ Pittsburgh police recruitment] numbers have fallen substantially over the past 18 months, but it's impossible to point to any one contributing factor that has resulted in a decline in police candidates," Chief Schubert said. "The social justice and police reform movement after the death of George Floyd has undoubtedly contributed to the recent decline in police recruitment locally and across the country.

" The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police recognizes that its officers' legitimacy is dependent on the trust and respect we have from the communities we serve."

Many prospective city police candidates have expressed concerns about anti-police sentiments and calls to defund the police, Chief Schubert said. Some have fears about choosing a career with inherent dangers where they don't feel valued, he said.

"Our officers work on a daily basis to earn [trust], to build relationships and restore trust where it may have been broken," he said. "Although we have seen a decline in applicants, I believe and hope we will see an upward trend in the foreseeable future."

State of 'emergency' in Rankin Borough

In Rankin — just eight miles south of Pittsburgh on the Monongahela River — a major drought of police applications has occurred in the last several years at the borough's police department.

"The pandemic has not had an effect on our ability to hire folks," Rankin Borough Police Chief Ryan Wooten said. "We used to have 50 to 100 applicants in my cabinet. Now, I haven't had anyone walk in my door in a year.

"There is a state of emergency that no one wants to talk about. It's a pandemic for us in law enforcement."

Rankin is a high-crime, low-income area, which has made police recruitment more difficult, Chief Wooten said.

After saying his department currently has half the number of officers it normally employs, Chief Wooten declined to say how many officers are currently on the force. The department had about a dozen officers in 2018; it has only hired around four people in the last two years, he said. He said he is trying to lead by example as policing is a "noble cause and a noble issue" for him.

"Who wants to be a police officer in this day and age?" Chief Wooten said. "I was brought up in a different way. I've fought too hard and too long to get in the police academy. I can tell you the core guys I have here, they share the core beliefs I have."

Four Mon Valley communities — Braddock, North Braddock, East Pittsburgh and Rankin — had been considering a joint police force recently.

North Braddock's council opted out of the study in a 5-4 vote in October 2020, a week after Braddock initially voted 4-3 to move forward with the regionalization plan. This left Braddock, East Pittsburgh and Rankin as participants in the state consolidation study.

But Braddock's council joined North Braddock earlier this year in March and opted out of the plan, too.

"I was the biggest proponent for that consolidation," Chief Wooten said. "I know that we could have served our communities better, and we could have given them transparency and accountability. We have new councils coming in and they're still talking about it.

"It's all about economics. We need to have folks come in with redevelopment and new jobs and help sustain a better tax bracket. People need to actually be able to make a living doing this [police] job. I can't recruit if no one is out there to help recruit."

The Rankin department is a part-time police force. Chief Wooten is the only full-time officer.

(c)2021 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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