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Police forces get aggressive, creative to recruit officers

Law enforcement agencies across the region look to find and retain new officers with a heightened sense of urgency.

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  • | 5:00 a.m. April 30, 2024
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Jordan Poulos came to Bradenton Police from Illinois in 2022 after 15 years working for the Chicago Police Department and the DeKalb Police Department.
Jordan Poulos came to Bradenton Police from Illinois in 2022 after 15 years working for the Chicago Police Department and the DeKalb Police Department.
Photo by Mark Wemple
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When a law enforcement hiring expo was held in the Chicago last October, there were some (way) out of town guests: a pair of Bradenton police officers. The duo drove all the way north, some 1,200 miles, to recruit some experienced Illinois cops.

The Bradenton cops were not turned away because the expo wasn't actually limited to Illinois police agencies.

The long northern drive was seen as gutsy by other agencies, says Meredith Censullo, Bradenton Police Department public information officer. Gusty because traditionally, while police departments will poach from neighboring towns and cities, and even regionally, they don't normally recruit new officers so far outside the state.

But Florida's well-documented population boom — the state has grown by more than 3.5 million people since 2010, up 18.5% — has caused the officer-per-thousand people ratio in some areas to plummet. Officials at some police and sheriff's departments say they are short as many as 200 officers per department. 

Consider Hernando County, north of Tampa, where Sheriff Al Nienhuis says his officer ratio dropped to 1.5 deputies per 1,000 people. The state ratio for full-time Florida deputies is 2.02, and that's the lowest in decades, according to a Florida Sheriffs Association's September report.

Even worse: Hernando deputies are the only police for the entire county, including unincorporated Spring Hill, and Brooksville, the county seat, which it contracts with. The 1.5 ratio means Nienhaus is short about 200 deputies, he says in an email to the Business Observer, as Hernando surges past 200,000 residents.

Officer shortages, or looking at potential shortages due to retirements and attrition, has caused many law enforcement agencies across the region and statewide to get aggressive and creative to address it. 

Like going to Illinois.

On board

Recruiting and hiring experienced cops from up north is one way to fill the void. (BPD, with slightly fewer than 130 officers, doesn't have an officer shortage right now, and officials seek to keep it that way.)

Jordan Poulos is one of the officers who made the trip to Chicago. Poulos came to Bradenton from Illinois in 2022, Censullo says, after 15 years working for the Chicago Police Department and the DeKalb Police Department.

The other traveler was Kevin Williams, sworn into Bradenton Police in late 2022, a former member of a multi-agency anti-terrorism task force and recruited from the New York City Police Department. 

"Our goal was to recruit experienced officers to join Bradenton Police, which is why Jordan and Kevin were asked to go," says Censullo.

Another potential solution to the shortage? Money. 

Eyeing an advantage after the 2020 George Floyd riots and the resulting "defund the police" movements, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature approved a $5,000 bonus for new recruits in 2022. (Williams in Bradenton earned the bonus.) 

At a Jan. 30 meeting with Florida sheriffs, DeSantis said the bonus so far has been given to more than 4,000 new police, including more than 340 officers from out of state.

DeSantis seems to have taken real zeal in seeing Florida cities and the state itself advertising in New York and Illinois. And Attorney General Ashley Moody also handles some of the recruitment.

Moody runs a "Be a Hero" website touting the bonus and the other less-known incentives, including up to $25,000 for first-time home buyers and money for police who adopt children within the child welfare system.

It's working, says Enrique Nazario, the police recruiter at the Sarasota Police Department and a retired officer who served in the Indiana State Police and worked for the Orlando Police Department. 

"The bonus does help," says Nazario. "It's an absolute benefit."

It appears to have helped the Sarasota Police Department fill a 10-officer gap over two years. The city has a budget for 190 cops and has 188 now.

Another recruiting tactic? Take ads out in newspapers or billboards in Times Square. The Pembroke Pines Police Department, for example, recently took out a full recruitment ad in the New York Post. 

Sunny days

Yet even before 2020's "defund the police" chants, Florida was not really having a police reputational problem. New York and Chicago cops were known to come to Florida to round out their careers. Now younger recruits come too.

"Florida is a welcoming law enforcement state," says Nazario. "Very pro-law enforcement."

The political and sunny atmosphere helped even before the bonuses. In October 2021, before the bonus became law, Lakeland Police announced the hiring of 13 officers from New York City police alone.

Then came the 2022 bonus. It allowed incentives for local agencies to advertise in other states, incentives handed through the Commerce Department. 

Even so, most candidates for the badge come from Florida. That's desirable, says Nazario, as those candidates have an ownership stake in their home state, especially if they are from Sarasota County.

And Tampa Police recruit "from everywhere," says Jonee' Lewis, TPD director of communications and public affairs, but they don't have any targeted recruitment of Northeastern or Midwestern candidates like Lakeland or Bradenton.

Instead, Tampa tends to focus on colleges, she says, and there are enough colleges in the region to help fill TPD ranks.

And while Sarasota likes local recruits, the city is diverse, and diverse candidates are sought, Nazario says with pride. Sarasota's recruitment has meant the city only needs two more police officers.

Nazario says they are looking at two candidates — from Illinois and New York state.

Refund the police

But new police officers come with connected costs. Sarasota and Bradenton have budgeted for them, and applied for grants for the more costly expenses. 

It's not just cop cars and Glocks to pay for. Sarasota Police estimates it costs four months of pay before a new police officer can "go solo" in the fifth phase of training. And it costs $125,000 to train, equip and pay a first-year deputy in Hernando County, Nienhuis says. 

And, of course, there is the car and "utility belt." 

Nazario says each new recruit in the department gets a car, a body camera, a gun, uniform and various crime-fighting tools and rescue kits, including the drug Narcan, which can be used on opioid overdose cases.

It's all a logistical challenge for any department, says Nazario.

In Bradenton, the logistics of supply alone have led to the city forming a "uniform committee" to address police clothing needs.

Censullo says a major Bradenton gear supplier is Axon, the Arizona company once known as Taser International and best known for the electric shock gun. Since that product lifted Axon into being a national police supplier, Axon has grown, selling body cameras, drones with cameras, software that catalogs evidence and VR (virtual reality) training.

Tech is expensive, so Bradenton sometimes relies on grants for high-tech devices to help fight crime, or enhance rescues.

Bradenton wants to use tech to fight the age-old nemesis of cops and rescue agents: illegal drugs. Drugs have led to better tech to detect them, but the machines are not cheap.

While Bradenton is relatively small for a city, a July 2023 grant request notes it gets 3 million visitors a year. Just a few of those visitors bringing drugs can be a problem. Bradenton Police noted the city had 75 overdoses with multiple drug-related deaths by mid-2023.

So in mid-2023, the city applied for one Fisher Scientific "TruNarc Handheld Narcotics Analyzer" and one TruNarc solution kit. The analyzer tests for 500 different substances — more accurate than a drug-sniffing dog. The analyzer and kit cost $32,400.


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