Cleveland on pace to hire hundreds more police officers

While police departments deal with a shrinking pool of job candidates, Cleveland plans to add several hundred new officers over the next year thanks to an aggressive recruiting plan aimed at making its department look more like the community it serves.

Democratic Mayor Frank Jackson set a goal of adding 250 new officers last year after city voters approved an income tax increase intended in part to bolster the ranks of a police department bracing for a wave of retirements from baby boomers over the next five years. Around 40 percent of the department's force of roughly 1,500 officers has more than 20 years of service.

The ability to hire new officers is significant for a department that has battled image problems after high-profile shootings, large lawsuit settlements and a federal finding that officers had engaged in a pattern of excessive force and violating civil rights. Cleveland and the U.S. Department of Justice reached an agreement in 2015 to have a court-appointed monitor oversee departmental reforms.

Before the consent decree, police recruiting in Cleveland had been haphazard. Today, with the Department of Justice requiring a recruitment plan, there's a safety forces recruiting unit with five officers headed by Sgt. Charmin Leon.

"It looks promising," Leon said. "It's just a matter of having resources and the commitment of the department to do it."

Changes in how Cleveland recruits officers have put the department in position of meeting the mayor's hiring goals, Leon said in an interview. A class of 42 police cadets graduated in February, and 69 recruits currently in the police academy are slated to graduate this fall. Additional classes are to begin this month and in October and November, with more to follow next year.

A full-time recruiting team has allowed the city to cast a wide net at job fairs in and out of state. Community outreach has been ramped up to include visits to places such as beauty salons and barbershops. City employees have been asked to be on the lookout for potential candidates. And to combat one of the primary reasons recruits wash out during the selection process, the department is holding conditioning camps to get them in shape to pass a physical agility test.

While other cities are struggling with recruiting, Cleveland has compiled a list of more than 2,000 candidates, allowing the city to tighten its selection process to find people with the skills needed to accomplish community policing in an urban setting.

In surveys prompted by the consent decree, residents noted the lack of diversity in the department. The latest census figures show Cleveland with a population of around 385,000 people that roughly breaks down to 51 percent black, 34 percent white and 11 percent Hispanic. About 65 percent of the departments patrol officers and detectives are white, 23 percent are black and 10 percent are Hispanic. About 14 percent of officers are women.

In the current academy class of 69 recruits, 37 percent of cadets are women or minorities.

The court-appointed monitor overseeing the consent decree, Matthew Barge, said he's encouraged by Cleveland's recruiting efforts.

"They've come up with something that's pretty forward thinking," Barge said. "The division and the city have really thought about this in a focused and strategic way."

Jeff Follmer, president of the union that represents patrol officers, detectives and dispatchers, said additional officers are sorely needed. Patrol officers in the five police districts are routinely ordered to extend shifts to keep enough cruisers on the street, he said. A deluge of radio calls gives officers little time to interact with the community as problem-solvers, something the consent decree also requires.

"If we get another 250 officers, there would be a lot of opportunity for officers to do a lot of different things," Follmer said.

Louis Dekmar, police chief in LaGrange, Georgia, and president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said a robust economy and negative perceptions about the profession have led to shrinking pools of candidates who are needed to replace retiring baby boomers.

"All of us are competing for the same thing — a limited pool of candidates who are qualified and interested in a career involving police service," Dekmar said.