For 15 years, and three Atlanta mayors, the quest for a police force with 2,000 officers has been part magical number, part mirage, part running municipal joke of political promises unmet.
Reaching that goal has been like filling a bucket with holes in it. In 2008, for instance, the city poured in 120 recruits but 177 veteran cops leaked out. In 2009, 112 were poured in and 140 leaked out, retiring, heading to other forces or even changing to careers that offer better pay.
The elusive goal was originally set in 1997, when then-Mayor Bill Campbell promised 2,000 cops by the year 2000. The city has never come close - until now.
This year, Mayor Kasim Reed vowed to finally obtain that goal by June 30, 2013, a timeframe that would coincide with his re-election effort. So far, the city seems to be tracking toward hitting the mark, having hired 674 recruits since he was inaugurated in January 2010, according to statistics provided by the department. The increased hiring coincides with a decrease in the attrition rate (376 since January 2010), meaning the city is plugging some of the bucket’s holes.
There are now about 1,925 officers, although that includes some 160 recruits who are being trained or waiting to go to the academy. Classes with 35 new recruits start every couple of months at APD’s academy.
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In an interview last week, Police Chief George Turner said APD has the most manpower in its history, adding, “We have more people on the streets than we have had for years.”
But some veteran and retired officers say the city’s drive to fill the long-depleted ranks has the department hiring officers not up to the challenge, leaving the streets policed by a force that is sometimes overwhelmed and largely inexperienced. A third of the force has less than three years with a gun belt.
The department is criticized for pushing through candidates who should have been weeded out. A visit to the academy last week found a larger than normal class of 42 because there were 11 “recycles,” recruits who have failed previously and were getting another chance.
A review of three earlier classes found about half of the students failed the physical training test the first time out. But by the fourth try, nobody failed. Similarly, a large number failed early firearms tests.
“They don’t even fail anybody,” said a veteran sergeant who did not want his name used for fear of reprisal. “They keep trying and trying to get them to pass. They want a warm body in a blue uniform.”
And those who make it through academy to the streets are finding it hard to get vital, real-life advice from veterans.
Tony Biello, a retired lieutenant with 29 years on the force, said: “When I hit the street, the average guy out there had seven to nine years. Now the average guy has a year or two. It’s rookies teaching rookies.”
When Biello worked a zone 20 years ago, each watch had about 50 officers answering 911 calls, he said. Turner said a zone watch will now have 25 to 30 officers, but they are augmented by more specialty squads on the street.
Manpower shortages are not new. Chief Turner came on in 1981 and was mentored by Biello, then a young patrolman. Turner was hired as part of a wave of nearly 600 officers hired in two years following the settlement of a racial discrimination lawsuit that had slowed hiring for years. But then, just as the department started building up, it started losing officers again - a cycle that has repeated itself through the decades.
Turner has heard the comments that the new guys don’t measure up. But, he said, veterans always find newbies to be lacking. No hiring standards have been eased under his watch, he said.
“Some of those officers from 15 years ago could not be hired now,” he said. “We find out information about them [in background searches] that we could not find back then.”
He said just one in 19 prospective applicants are hired. Recruits can have minor criminal records but not felonies. They could have tried marijuana, but not in the past two years. And they could not have tried harder drugs. Job seekers must pass psychological tests and basic physical tests before hitting the academy for 23 weeks. Then there’s 12 weeks of additional training on the street.
During a visit to the training academy, the 42 recruits of Class 227 were taking a break from hand-to-hand combat and the firing range to sit in a class and learn about interpersonal communication. The instructor called recruits up to the front of the class to role play scenarios with animated and emotional members of the public.
Instructor Shealane Gilliam-Smith spoke about how an officer’s “voice, pitch and volume” or stance and positioning can control a situation.
“Your posture when you’re out in this uniform speaks volumes,” she said. “You have to watch everything you do, because even when you’re not meaning it you’re telling people something.”
The class of 26 men (all shaved heads) and 16 women nodded in agreement.
Sgt. D’Andrea Price, a veteran with 21 years who now trains at the academy, sees a different type of recruit coming in, but not necessarily worse.
“These kids did not play outside until the streetlights came on like we did; they’re video kids,” she said. “They weren’t into team sports. They are more loners. But they are smarter and more educated than we were.”
Tom Petrie, a lanky 32-year-old recruit who finished the mile-and-a-half run in under 10 minutes, is a college grad who spent four years teaching English in Poland. The New Jersey native said he was surprised how quickly he was hired by the force, getting called just four days after attending a job fair.
He said he found the prospect of 30 years in a classroom too confining and is interested in the sense of adventure and advancement that a big city police force can afford. “I was a good teacher,” he said. “I think I’ll be a better cop.”
Petrie has heard about the attrition but thinks he might sink roots.
“I just bought a house, got married and would like to have children,” he said. “I’d be happy to stay here a long time.”
Joyclyn Lynn, a diminutive 24-year-old Atlanta area native, has a brother who is a cop and a cousin who is an APD major. Lynn is getting a masters degree in critical incident management and sees the department as an opportunity for advancement. But she sees no need to be married to the force.
“At first, I wanted to do two years and leave, but I’d like to be an investigator so when I go federal I’ll have experience,” she said. “This is one of my stepping stones. I want to travel.”
Ken Allen, president of APD’s chapter of the International Brotherhood of Police officers and a 27-year veteran of the force, said the mindset of recruits has changed.
“We’re getting people looking for a steady paycheck, people who are not law enforcement people,” he said. “It doesn’t mean they are bad officers. But many aren’t officers who will grow into the profession.”
Allen worries the slowdown in attrition will end when the economy picks up. “There are a lot of people with applications out somewhere and who want to leave,” he said. He is glad to see the approaching 2,000 figure, but he has a reservation.
“Can we afford those people? That’s the big question,” said Allen, who said the added budget money might be equally well spent giving veteran officers raises so they won’t leave.
Chief Turner understands his officers’ frustration on the spotty raises through the years. But he said salaries are flat everywhere and other departments have laid off cops, not hired them. He said raises will come when the economy turns around.
“We have worked too hard to get these numbers just to see them leave again,” Turner said.