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Tough standards make for tough hiring

t Poulsbo Police Department seeing decrease in qualified applicants.

POULSBO — The Poulsbo City Council pledged to fund two vacant police officer positions in 2009, despite the recent difficulty the department has had in finding qualified candidates. After much discussion the council put it to vote, resulting in a 4-3 decision that will allow both of the force’s vacant patrol officer positions to be filled. Not filling one of the spots would have helped to balance the city’s budget, which faces a preliminary $1 million shortfall. The post was valued at $85,000.

The positions have been open nearly a year, due in large part to a shortage of qualified applicants, which has left Poulsbo’s current commissioned officers with an extra load to shoulder.

“The problem that we run into is that we’ll have good candidates come in as far as their ability to interview well, think clearly, solve problems or issues that we discuss with them; they show the level of finesse that we require to be a police officer, but unfortunately — and this is the issue that is across the board in the U.S. — so many young people coming into law enforcement have fouled up their personal lives,” said Deputy Police Chief Shawn Delaney. Often, new entrants aren’t able to pass background checks, or don’t even make it that far in the process. Drug usage, credit abuse, arrest records and problems with landlords, employees or coworkers often raise unacceptable red flags, putting into question a candidate’s ability to properly enforce the law.

“It boils down to being responsible,” Delaney explained. “Unfortunately for them and for us we all lose out on being able to employ them.”

He added the police department doesn’t search out spotless backgrounds — “I don’t think that exists,” he said — but a certain level of quality is becoming harder to come by.

“We have seen a change in culture in regard to the responsibility in their personal lives,” he said. “We didn’t see that to this great extent not so many years ago.”

Delaney said he doesn’t know of a connection between declining police recruitment and the war in Iraq, though often the draw to serve is a parallel one, attracting similar types. Veterans usually make excellent candidates, he added.

Bainbridge Island Lt. Sue Shultz said her department recently held interviews that yielded more good candidates than could be hired. Currently the filling of the department’s vacant position has been delayed to help that city balance its budget, a move many jurisdictions are taking into consideration.

“I know that across the board police departments right now aren’t hiring because of the way the market is,” Shultz said. “We are a smaller agency and it does affect us because we’d love to be up to full capacity. We’re hoping that the funds will be available in the near future.”

She said she does understand the need for qualified applicants.

“I think community members expect their police department to hire the best of the best,” she said. “That’s a hard task sometimes, to find the best of the best.”

According to Human Resources Manager Deanna Kingery, the city of Poulsbo advertises for new recruits on its Web site, the Washington Association of Sherriff’s and Police Chief’s Web site, the Criminal Justice Training Center site, through posted notices at city hall, the police headquarters and post office and via mailers to other departments, Yahoo Hot Jobs and newspaper listings.

Delaney said approximately 20 candidates have been interviewed in the last six months, some falling into background search faux pas while others simply proving not the right fit. Currently, the department has at least one potential qualified candidate for an opening going through the process.

Still, Delaney said the lack of recruits can have a “substantial effect,” leading to scheduling headaches and less time off.

“It slows down the hiring process significantly,” he noted. “When you’re working below staff you still have to provide the service. To make up the difference ... your current personnel have to work overtime to take care of their mission.”

That usually comes in the form of longer or extra shifts for current officers, which can affect morale and fatigue levels. But the department won’t look to lowering its standards as an option.

“Will we lower our standards? The answer is no,” said Delaney. “That is why it takes so long, because we won’t lower our standards.”

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