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Police brace for ebb of experience

St. Petersburg could lose dozens of seasoned officers to retirement in 2004, while recruits are hard to find.

By LEANORA MINAI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 9, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- When Maj. Ron Hartz leaves the St. Petersburg Police Department, 30 years of experience will go with him.

He supervises officers in high schools and the detectives who investigate child molesters.

"I liked being a little cog in the wheel," said Hartz, 46, who will retire in 2004.

The St. Petersburg Police Department, already short three dozen officers, is bracing for Jan. 1, 2004, when 65 of its most seasoned officers are eligible to retire.

Across the nation, law enforcement agencies are feeling the ripple effect from mass hirings 20 to 30 years ago. Waves of officers are leaving at once, and fewer people want to take their places.

St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon is considering part-time positions to try to keep older officers, while recruiters shorten the application process and beef up the ranks before symptoms of a shortage sink in: longer response times, reduced patrols, specialty unit cutbacks.

"We've really got to be watching," Harmon said last week. "It's going to be an issue."

"It's a nationwide crisis," said Tampa recruiting Sgt. Charles Stanbro, who has traveled to New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia to find people to replace the 59 officers who will retire from his department next year.

Many police departments such as St. Petersburg, Miami and Washington, D.C., hired in large numbers in the 1970s and '80s. Those officers are leaving now, and fewer cadets are coming through the door.

Young adults are picking careers in computer technology or business, not public service, said John Dressback, director of the police and corrections academy at St. Petersburg College.

"Why go out and take the abuse on the street?" Dressback asked. "They're going to go out and find other jobs in corporate America."

Since January, 150 people filled out the 30-page application to be considered at the St. Petersburg Police Department. Only 26 were hired. Still, many of them will not work the street for another year because they are in training.

St. Petersburg resident Beth Shockley, 40, is among the candidates recruiters are relying on more and more.

Shockley spent 16 years selling sofas and other furniture to hotels. One day, she woke up bored and burned out. Now she's in the police academy, in the best shape of her life, with a job guarantee in St. Petersburg.

"Nobody would have expected me to become a police officer," said Shockley, who is 5-feet-2, weighs 113 pounds and plays a bagpipe.

While cadets like Shockley come forward, officers still leave. They get fired, retire or resign. Since January, St. Petersburg has lost 16 officers to resignations.

In another two years, the city could lose 12 percent of its force through retirements, though administrators believe some of them will stay for up to five more years under a special pension investment program.

Three of four majors eligible to retire from the St. Petersburg force in 2004 said they will stay.

"I got a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old," said Maj. Tim Story, 47, who has 24 years on the job and could leave in 2004. "I'm working for many, many years."

Hartz, the major who will retire in 2004, does not have a choice.

Like many others, he signed up for the special pension investment program after he hit 25 years. Under the program, officers must leave within five years of signing.

"I love this department," Hartz said. "But I have to leave unless they come up with something different in the meantime."

St. Petersburg's police union, the Police Benevolent Association, estimates that 40 to 50 of the 65 officers will retire in 2004.

Residents might notice.

"In some places, it's going to have a direct affect on the quality and level of police service a department can deliver to a community, especially since the new demands after Sept. 11," said Gerard Murphy, a researcher at the Police Executive Research Forum, a research and training organization in Washington, D.C.

In Miami, for example, four officers in the recruiting unit were transferred to the street last month because patrol was feeling the pinch, said Miami police Lt. Richard Walterman.

"That impacts our ability to hire because there are four less bodies conducting background investigations to fill gaps, so it's a vicious cycle," Walterman said.

Miami expects to lose 300 officers to retirement within five years. That is 29 percent of the force.

Police experts caution departments against hiring in clusters because standards might be overlooked or lowered to get as many people in as quickly as possible.

The Miami and Washington police departments hired large numbers in the 1980s and suffered the consequences a few years later with corruption scandals, said Murphy, the Police Executive Research Forum researcher.

Mary Peters, the St. Petersburg police department's training and recruiting major, said the agency has not lowered standards. The department has made it easier to apply, she said.

The department has cut the length of the application process, which includes interviews and medical and psychological exams, from 11/2 years to two months. Then there's an additional year of training.

The city also has switched from an application requirement of 60 college credits to 30. At the police academy, recruits earn the remaining credits.

Among incentives, the city is considering offering part-time police jobs and an evening police academy. City employees can earn a perk: a day off if they refer someone who becomes an officer.

-- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

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