IMPD faces tough competition for police recruits

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Police departments across the country are playing tug-of-war for potential recruits, and Indianapolis is working to find an advantage.

Mayor Joe Hogsett’s administration has boosted starting pay for new officers, offered signing bonuses and launched a marketing campaign to attract recruits from other Midwestern cities.

But the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department still has more than 250 police officer positions left unfilled as it competes with other cities offering their own signing bonuses of as much as $30,000 for out-of-state recruits and free flights for potential officers wanting to visit for a police ride-along.

Surveys show recruitment is a nationwide problem for police departments as attitudes toward law enforcement careers worsen and the resignations and retirements of police officers ramp up.

A survey from the Washington, D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum of 184 law enforcement agencies found a 42.7% increase in officer resignations from 2019 to 2021 and a 23.6% increase in retirements during the same period.

Those circumstances and an upcoming election have put Hogsett under increasing political pressure to fill the open police-officer slots as he seeks a third term as mayor.

Robin Shackleford, who unsuccessfully challenged Hogsett for the Democratic mayoral nomination earlier this month, has criticized the mayor for making little progress in increasing the number of police officers.

Republican nominee Jefferson Shreve, who will face Hogsett in the November election, also has criticized the mayor on that front.

He has suggested that more needs to be done to assess why police officers are leaving the force and address their concerns. But he hasn’t suggested specific policies to boost staffing and land more recruits.

IMPD’s staffing problems are nothing new.

During Hogsett’s first run for mayor in 2015, he pledged to hire 150 more officers.

At an event in March, Hogsett noted that IMPD has brought on 715 officers during his tenure to fill vacancies created by retirements and resignations, and that those officers now account for 46% of the department’s staffing.

But the department is still 250 shy of the 1,843 officers budgeted for this year. That is the staffing level a 2016 study commission recommended as appropriate.

That commission, chaired by Democratic City-County Councilor John Barth, also recommended increasing officer pay; the city followed through on that suggestion.

As Hogsett noted at a recent recruiting event, city police officers in 2016 started with annual pay of $39,000. Under his leadership, that has increased to almost $62,000 a year, plus a $10,000 signing bonus.

He noted that the total of $72,000 is approaching his mayoral salary of $95,000.

A $965,000 recruitment marketing campaign is also underway with billboards in Indianapolis’ Midwestern peer cities.

Hogsett said the recruitment campaign “spans media, cities, states and includes communities of every background.”

Barth said another initiative that might help with recruiting is the city’s effort to shift mental health emergency calls away from the police force to a clinician-led response team that the city is creating this year and is funding with $2 million.

“I think the fact that the city is investing more resources in mental health issues, and the state is concurrently — those two things together will make meaningful improvement over time,” Barth told Indianapolis Business Journal. “But that doesn’t change the right-now problem of there being an expectation of officers to have this 360-degree skill set that no human being has.”

Hogsett committed to the creation of a clinician-led response team about a month before a Black man suffering a mental health crisis died last year after being shot with a stun gun by an IMPD officer.

Last month, two officers were indicted by a grand jury on charges related to the death of Herman Whitfield III.

Such incidents add to the national scrutiny of police use of force since the 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

They also discourage people from wanting to become police officers, said Stephanie Whitehead, an associate criminal justice professor at Indiana University East.

“(Policing) used to be seen as, you know, exciting, helping people,” Whitehead said. “A lot of people are turned off now by seeing the bad side of a department.”

Public safety reforms can help change some of those feelings, she said.

IMPD has instituted a new use-of-force policy and deployed body cameras department-wide. Changes also have been made to training, with the addition of implicit-bias awareness modules and deescalation training. IMPD’s General Orders and Use of Force boards now have civilian majorities.

The Hogsett administration also is using its recruitment campaign as an opportunity to diversify the police force. It is currently nearly 80% white and 86.5% male.

IMPD currently has two Burmese officers to help build relationships with the city’s growing Burmese community, which, at 24,000 people, is the largest in the nation.

In late March, both participated in a recruitment event at the Burmese American Community Institute.

Officer Bawi Lian encouraged other Burmese to join the department. IMPD Chief Randal Taylor chimed in, too.

“We have specialty divisions, K-9, SWAT, narcotics,” Taylor told the group. “All kinds of different things for you to get into and help you to hone your skills and become an expert. That’s what we’re hoping will happen.”

Commander Ida Williams, who has been with the department 33 years, said police departments nationwide — including IMPD — have signed on to a U.S. Department of Justice goal to make police recruitment classes 30% female by 2030.

She said the goal is attainable if more women can be persuaded that police work is open to them.

“I’m amazed that I run across young girls and young women who don’t think they can do this job,” Williams said. “And I’m living proof that they can.”•

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