As police officers retire, local departments are facing a new problem finding replacements.

For decades, hiring new recruits was never an issue for suburban departments. There was always a large pool and suburban departments were attractive places to work because of the pay, less stressful work environment and less violent crime.

But recently some departments have been struggling: Fairview Park, Westlake and Rocky River are all short a few officers.

“Recruiting is harder now so we’re trying to look outside the box as far as recruiting goes,” Westlake Capt. Gerald Vogel said.

While others are not.

Avon Lake Police Chief Vincent Molnar and Avon police Chief Daniel Fischbach said they have had no trouble finding new officers.

“Knock on wood, we haven’t had any problems so far,” Fischbach said,

Nationally, police and public safety departments are facing a shortage of new applicants alongside rolling retirements.

The number of applicants has been declining steadily through the years, beginning as far back as the Great Recession. The protests across the country about police brutality and racism that followed George Floyd’s murder by a police officer May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis, have also made police work less attractive.

Chiefs along the Westshore also attribute the shrinking pool of new recruits to the socioeconomic climate around policing, the work required by an officer, including night and weekend duty, and the competitiveness of better-paying, safer jobs.

“There’s places in Cuyahoga County where you make $17 or $18 (an hour) as a police officer,” Bay Village Police Chief Rob Gillespie said. “You can go to Aldi’s to make more than that and not be shot at.”

Molnar said he knows of two candidates who passed the test but decided against becoming officers because of the civil unrest last year.

“They just decided they wanted to take a different career path,” Molnar said.

Vogel said the Westlake department is moving to a National Testing Network, which would open up recruitment on a national level for the department.

National Testing Networks provide online tests for candidates that are sent directly to the departments hiring across the country.

“We are also still in the process of going to a lateral transfer process where we can accept police officers who are already working in other cities or other entities,” Vogel said. “They are certified police officers working somewhere else that we could transfer through civil service rules.”

He said City Council limits the number of full-time officers. Westlake has 51 full-time officers, just short of the allowed 56. The department has six part-time officers, including the school resource officer, and 15 auxiliary officers.

Auxiliary officers are citizen volunteers who are unarmed and are not able to make arrests. Most departments have auxiliary officers who work events, monitor closed roads when wires go down or similar situations. They aid the force but are unable to perform sworn officer duties such as traffic stops, arrests or writing tickets.

Some departments have changed how they recruit while others shift the functionality of the departments. While most still run their own dispatches, others have begun to combine to pool officers and resources such as Fairview Park and North Olmsted.

The two cities merged dispatches and jails in August.

Fairview Park Police Chief Paul Shepard said the shortage is affecting not only police but also fire departments. He remembers a test in 2014 that only 30 people took, that four passed and were hired.

Shepard’s theories go back to the early 2000s when there was a program that delayed retirement. He said from 2003-2011 few people retired, but once the program matured there were a large number of openings across the state.

Shepard said following the Great Recession of 2008, departments were not hiring because the local tax base had been hurt.

“You had a double bang. You had no hirings and then you had all these vacancies,” Shepard said. “It created this giant boom because anybody who wanted to be a police officer (was not able to) and then they went out and got a different job.”

Shepard said the department hired good candidates between 2011 and 2012 and is playing catchup as the department matures and retires. Fairview Park has 26 full-time officers and 18 auxiliaries.

“The other effect is the social-political climate where many people may not want to be a police officer because of what happened last year,” Shepard said, referring to the protests.

He believes interest is on the upswing, though, after teaching at one of the police academies where numbers have risen from 13 candidates last year to 20 this year.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that in years to come, we’ll catch back up and things will get better,” Shepard said. “The other problem, because there are so few new applicants going into the system, departments are feeding on each other.”

He said he is seeing lateral transfers where officers will leave their current department and transfer to others. Shepard has seen these over the past five years in particular.

Rocky River police are accepting applicants for a test in January, said Chief George Lichman. Like Shepard, he said that cities used to have so many applicants they would sometimes put a cap on the number they accepted.

“Rocky River would see around 200 applicants 20 years ago, and in some cities it would be up to 300,” Lichman said. “In the past five years we’ve never had more than 50 take the exam.”

He attributes part of the decline to the work required of an officer. Lichman said there is the factor of the amount of attention being paid to officers right now, but he believes there is a bigger issue with the workforce.

“Young people these days are not interested in working weekends, holidays and overnight shifts,” Lichman said. “The demands of police work are less consistent with the expectations of younger folks.”

Rocky River has 33 sworn officers, one shy of the 34 allocated by the city. The department has eight auxiliaries.

“In the first half of 2022 we’re expecting three retirements, which would drop us down by four (openings),” Lichman said. “The difficulty with that is we don’t hire until there’s an opening and then after they’re sworn in we have field training, which typically goes about four months.”

He added that the department is expecting between four and six additional retirements between 2023 and 2027.

Lichman said during field training the officers are “there, but not there,” where they will be shadowing full-time officers to have the minimum qualifications for solo patrol.

“Even after that during solo patrol they’re accompanied by a backup unit,” he said.

Lichman hopes to have enough applicants in January to fill the openings that will appear throughout 2022. The list of applicants who pass the exam will be worked through as openings come.

“Short term we’re not going to be able to fill those spots on the day of retirement and how that will be manifested is that it’ll be more difficult for our patrol officers to take time off,” Lichman said.

Westlake’s list of 110 applicants will expire in January and the city also plans to put a test out early next year. The list is viable for up to two years before a new test is put out to join the force.

Vogel said Westlake is expecting five retirements in the next few years on top of being short now.

Other departments are fully staffed but are looking to diversify, such as Bay Village. Gillespie said his department puts applications as far out as it can through ads and social media.

Bay Village has 25 full-time officers and 21 civilian auxiliary officers.

“We really want the best candidates, but we also are trying to open our organization up to women and people of color,” Gillespie said. “We really want to make sure that it’s an inclusive opportunity that everybody knows about.”

He said Bay Village also uses the National Testing Network to cast a wide net for candidates, even interviewing applicants from states as far away as Georgia and Florida in the past.

“Law enforcement should represent the people that they are there to protect,” Gillespie said. “There are not enough women or people of color in law enforcement and that’s statistically been the case.”

West Life Reporter Tom Corrigan contributed to this story.

Contact this reporter at mmacarthur@westlifenews.com or 814-403-0197.

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