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Central Pa. police departments struggle to hire new recruits

Police departments across the state and nation are struggling to hire and retain recruits to fill their thinning ranks.

ELIZABETHTOWN, Pa. — Elizabethtown Borough Police Chief Edward Cunningham is interviewing 24 candidates tonight. He’s still not sure, though, whether he can fill three openings in his 18-officer department; several other nearby departments are also recruiting.

“Each police department had multiple openings so we were all competing for the same candidates,” Cunningham said.

Police departments across the state and nation are struggling to hire and retain recruits.

The confluence of causes contributing to the candidate shortage, according to Police 1 Network, includes attitudinal changes and expectations of members of the Millennial and Gen X generations, as well as negative portrayals and attitudes toward police.

That all factors in, Cunningham said. But another problem is the number of potential candidates who are disqualified because of posts they have made on social media.

“People are being disqualified because of things that happened in their past in social media,” he said. “Things that show violence or hate speech, things like that.”

Larger departments are also struggling with recruitment. 

Officials with Harrisburg Bureau of Police said they have the funding for upwards of 140 officers. The current force is short by about 10 to 15 officers.

The shortage isn’t affecting the department’s crime solving, officials said; they’ve filed charges in nine of the city’s 10 homicides so far this year. But officials would like to see more police presence out in the community.

“If we had additional officers we could put them on bike patrol, we could put them on foot patrol, stuff like that,” said Lt. Kyle Gautsch of the Harrisburg Bureau of Police. “So this taxes us and it doesn’t allow us to do some of the stuff that we’d like to do, at least right now at this point.”

Like many other police departments, Harrisburg’s is also expecting upwards of 10 retirements in the next year. A survey by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) found the retirement rate rose 59% in agencies of 50 to 249 personnel from 2020 to 2021.

Lt. Gautsch said low morale was a big motivator for officers to retire.

“I don’t think it detracts people from coming on the job, but once they’ve been on it for a while, once they get those and they see those [negative attitudes]… that’s why I think you see officers that once they can retire, they are retiring,” Gautsch said.

The Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association is working on recruitment strategies for candidates down the pipeline, like identifying high school students who may be interested in pursuing a career in law enforcement.

That long-term strategy does little to help current shortages.

“We’re finding that we have to be more creative to compete with other industries to attract candidates,” Chief Cunningham said.

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