BAKER CITY — Add law enforcement officers to the growing list of professions feeling the brunt of a labor shortage and facing hiring woes.
Police departments in Pendleton, La Grande and Baker City are having little luck finding applicants for their open positions, and the police chiefs are flummoxed about the reasons why.
“We’ve had zero applicants,” said Ty Duby, chief of the Baker City Police Department.
Duby, who worked for 25 years for the Oregon State Police before joining the Baker City Police Department in 2019, recalls a time when a single opening brought in hundreds of applications, giving law enforcement agencies a wide variety of potential applicants to choose from. Those numbers have dwindled over the past year — and Duby said he has had to actively pursue applicants and ask them to apply for the job.
The the Baker City Police Department is not alone in the struggle to find qualified applicants.
“I’ve been with the city of La Grande for 28 years, and 20 to 25 years ago we would see 150 applications for one opening for a police officer position — and that has been trending in what I feel is a negative direction for a long time,” said La Grande Police Chief Gary Bell.
Bell’s department is having only slightly better luck hiring, with nearly 15 qualified applicants vying for two open positions, he said, but the situation is being made more difficult with an increasing number of law enforcement officers retiring or resigning.
“The last 18 to 24 months, we have seen a lot of our long-time employees — police officers — retire, and so we have been doing more hiring than what maybe we would, or have over the course of the last 15 to 20 years,” Bell said.
To attract lateral transfers — poaching police officers from other regions — Bell created a $6,000 hiring bonus for certified experienced police officers, hoping to draw in officers from across the state. So far, that effort “has not garnered any certified officers,” Bell said.
Lateral transfers are valuable for police departments due to the amount of training required for new officers. It can take up to nine months to transition a new recruit into an independent and capable police officer, Bell said.
“Five to eight years ago we started retiring police officers — and you can’t quickly replace the experience and the wisdom that those career police officers possess,” Bell said. “You genuinely can’t just replace a police officer. It’s a lengthy road.”
Dealing with a public image problem
While current labor shortages are not limited to one career, police agencies are facing yet another hurdle in their attempts to bring in new hires — a growing sentiment that paints police officers in a bad light.
“Everybody is having a hard time finding people who want to work, and especially this profession right now. It’s probably not the most sexy profession,” said Pendleton Police Chief Charles Byram.
Byram, along with Bell and Duby, noted the public image of law enforcement has deteriorated in the wake of massive protests and riots across the nation following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. Images from major cities showed police clad in riot gear blanketing city blocks in tear gas, as well as several incidents of assault against members of the media.
“Since George Floyd we have seen a marked decrease in the number of people interested in applying to be police officers,” Bell said. “Law enforcement has really been beat up in the course of the last 18 to 24 months.”
That sentiment has been muted in more rural areas, where police enjoy a strong support from local residents who, by and large, have a favorable outlook toward law enforcement, according to Bell. Much of that favorable opinion may stem from the active community involvement from police officers in rural communities.
“We have to become embedded in our community. I mean people know us; we’re only 17,000,” Byram said, referring to Pendleton’s population. “Somebody is going to know you. You’re only a few degrees of separation away from someone you’re arresting.”
Holding the line on values
Byram said those who are interested in a law enforcement career are welcome to join an officer for a ride-along or to come in and chat with the police chief about the job.
“Quite honestly, you know, I’m open for all comers,” Byram said. “Whether you have experience or not, it’s one of those things where we’re also good at training cops.”
However, not everyone who applies should be hired as a police officer. They need to meet the basic physical and psychological standards set by the agencies and the state, as well as passing background checks and medical screenings.
“The one thing that I won’t do is sacrifice our standards just to make a hiring decision, I won’t do it,” Byram said. “If you do that, then you’re setting yourself up for disaster. If we have to run short for a little bit, that’s fine. But our values, our mission, our beliefs aren’t going to be sacrificed just because I need another body on the road.”