Demographic Shifts Force Sheriff?s Department to Recruit Like a Business

The population of southern California is booming and the demographic shift is forcing the region’s law enforcement agencies to step up their recruiting efforts and compete for talent more like a business to keep pace with increasing demand for their services.

Both the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department are recruiting aggressively these days as each tries to increase its overall ranks to more than 10,000 to meet the public need.

“Recruiting, for us, is the foremost priority for the department, along with public safety,” says Lt. Joe Fennell, who heads up the recruiting unit for County Sheriff Lee Baca. “Our goal is to hire 1,000 deputy sheriff generalists per year, and that will be our annual goal at least into 2007 and 2008.”

Fennell says the growing population of the Los Angeles-Orange-Ventura-San Bernardino-Riverside county area is placing unprecedented demands on law enforcement agencies across southern California and forcing them to staff up faster and longer than ever before.

The sheriff’s department says it is still feeling the impact of a board of supervisors’ decision about four years ago to reduce its budget by $166 million dollars. That cutback put the brakes on much of the agency’s hiring plans.

“That basically took us out of recruiting because we had to shut down the recruiting office. In 2003, we only recruited 75 deputy sheriffs, and in 2004, only 190. That’s basically shutting down our recruiting office,” Fennell says, especially considering that it’s now charged with hiring 1,000 of them this year, and at least into the foreseeable future.

Salaries Rise

The most effective channel for identifying new recruits, Fennell says, has been the sheriff department’s own website, which is replete with calls to public service messages such as ‘Be A Hero,’ ‘Be A Deputy,’ and ‘Real People — Real Leaders.’ The site also advertises ‘Excellent Pay’ and ‘Exceptional Benefits.’

The website has information about Community Job Fairs, information about the testing required of deputy sheriff applicants, and community-service alerts with tips for protecting against identity theft and a call to learn how murders are investigated.

Also prominently displayed is a flash media advisory explaining that the starting salaries for qualified deputy sheriffs increased 13 percent effective April 1 of this year, to $4,749 per month. That comes out to a sign-on salary of $56,988 on an annualized basis, and about what the department needs to compete for talent in the competitive southern California employment market.

Fennell says another of the department’s more effective recruitment channels has been its billboard advertising campaign. The department current has over 20 large billboards in the greater Los Angeles area and one in Nevada, all of which help extend the messages that residents across the region see regularly in newspaper and television ads.

The agency has entered into recruitment-related sponsorships with a variety of organizations, but perhaps none as high profile as those agreed with home-state sports teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Oakland Raiders, UCLA Bruins, USC Trojans, and the Los Angeles Kings.

Those sports agreements help create a lot of recruiting buzz for the department, but Fennell says its employee referral program is probably the most effective recruiting source he’d like more people to be talking about.

“About 26 percent of our new deputy hires come from our referral program,” Fennell says.

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Despite their proximity and the common public service calling of their law enforcement mission, Fennell says that Sheriff Baca’s Los Angeles County agency doesn’t see itself competing for talent specifically against the Los Angeles Police Department.

However, he says, “We’re competing with everyone in law enforcement, and we’re all drawing from the same applicant pool,” along with other government agencies and the private sector, says Fennell.

Fennell acknowledges that it has employed some creative recruiting tactics that he’d prefer to keep private.

“We do have some things out there that are creative and innovative,” says Fennell, “and we’re doing those things with the support of Sheriff Baca. We’ve been recruiting successfully under his leadership and vision. He’s in total support of what we’re doing and he has a ‘hands on’ approach to recruitment.”

Part of the recruiting challenge law enforcement agencies face is the availability of other well-paying jobs in southern California, as well as the high cost of housing and the demands of the ongoing war against terrorism, which has extended the service enlistments of many who might otherwise return home and seek out a new career behind the badge.

Looking ahead to the immense recruiting challenge over the next few years, Fennell says one of the biggest challenges is getting the support of the public education system to produce more graduates who can pass the department’s written and oral examinations.

“We believe our education system is kind of letting us down,” Fennell says, explaining that the agency’s recruiting figures would improve significantly if more diploma-holding applicants were capable of passing its 90-minute written exam.

To help improve those scores, the county sheriff’s department has been offering test-taking seminars to help those whose job application might otherwise be snuffed out by a failing grade.

But Fennell also points out that law enforcement agencies aren’t the only ones faced with the challenge of raising the educational capacity of job applicants. “That’s what everyone is facing, including Corporate America,” he says.