[Note: this story has been modified since its original posting.]
It starts with Erik Estrada in “CHiPs”, and Kent McCord in “Adam-12.” It’s there when DARE Officers go to a fifth-grade class. It’s that feeling most of us have had growing up that, for some, never goes away. For Sgt. Eric White and Officer Chris Kelley of the Columbia Police Department, their profession is a childhood dream come true.
Though both are proud of their careers in law enforcement, they say dropping recruitment numbers indicate that fewer people are following in their footsteps .
“In recruiting overall, we’ve had to switch gears,” White said. “When I tested, there were about three or four hundred applicants.” That was in 1991, White said, when recruiting sessions were held once a year. “Now we test three times a year and get between 30 and 60 applicants,” White said. The testing session for officers could be held at Hearnes Center in ’91, White said. Now, it can be held at the Municipal Building.
White attributes this drop in interest to the changing portrayal of police on TV, and to the change in what people want from their careers.
“It’s my opinion that the emphasis was on patrol when I was growing up,” White said. “You saw officers working the beat and handling those calls to service.”
But White said this has changed. Now, he said, the emphasis is on the investigative side of police work made popular by shows such as “C.S.I.”
“You go to recruiting trips and a lot of adults graduating college don’t want to do the beat thing,” White said. “They want to go straight to being an investigator because that’s what is depicted by TV.”
White recounted the past, remembering the time when he decided to be a police officer. He looked up slightly, and with a boyish smile said, “I fell in love with cop shows like ‘CHiPs,’ ‘Starsky and Hutch’ and ‘S.W.A.T.’” His favorite character was Francis “Ponch” Poncherello, played by Erik Estrada.
“That started it all, and ever since, I’ve always felt this was the ideal job for me,” White said.
White also said the recent trend is to be more free-thinking. He said the restrictions put on what police officers can say and do are not very appealing to new generations.
White said jobs that offer more freedom and the ability to do more of what you want are what attract people now.
Now, the Police Department is making an effort to reach out to the younger generation with programs such as the annual “Youth Academy.” The academy’s purpose is to give children in grades 8 through 12 a broad overview of police work. Officer Linda Fincham is a School Resource Officer and head of the Youth Academy.
She said the academy dispels the myths children learn from TV about police work, and shows them a real-world version of the police.
It gives children an introduction to topics such as crisis negotiation, physical training, fingerprinting and many other types of police work.
“This is where we hook them,” Fincham said.
Once they have an overview of what police work is really like, Fincham said many of the children go on to become police cadets.
The Cadet Program allows teenagers to assist police officers with traffic direction, parking at community events and other activities.
Kelley was one child that traded in his cadet patch for a badge.
Though in the same department, Kelley didn’t share the same TV inspiration with White. “Sure, I watched ‘CHiPs,’” Kelley said. “But ‘Adam 12’ was my favorite.”
Kelley participated in the Cadet Program through his senior year in high school.
“I think every child becomes interested in being a fireman or police officer at a very young age,” Kelley said. “I kind of stuck with it.”
After graduation, Kelley was offered a job with the Police Department as a Community Service Aide. As an aide, Kelley worked on traffic violations, parking tickets, and misdemeanors. Finally, in 1998, Kelley had gone from dressing up as McGruff the Crime Dog to being a part of the Community Action Team and a member of the Forensic Evidence Team with the department.
Kelley said he thinks the reason fewer people are applying to be a police officer is simple: pay.
“A lot of people have come up to me that are younger and say, ‘Yeah I’d like to be that, but you guys don’t get paid very well,’” Kelley said. The younger generation wants higher wages after college, Kelley said. “And law enforcement isn’t going to give you that unless you’re in a big city.”
Nonetheless, the department is focusing on college students and show them the reasons to become a police officer. The department also requires its officers to have at least 60 hours of college credit before they can serve on the force.
Sgt. John Wordern, head of the Personnel Department Development Unit, said the department is one of the few in the state with such a requirement.
Worden said the college requirement, along with the need for higher wages, contributes to the decline in recruitment.
Worden said he hopes attending college fairs in Missouri will help to recruit those already interested in law enforcement. The department needs to work more on proactive recruiting as well, Worden said.
“Maybe identify that sophomore or that junior and start contacting them,” Worden said. “So it’s more of a recruiting thing, not having them come to us.” But he said the wages aren’t very attractive to most college students.
For officers like Kelley and White, though, the allure of the job remains the same as it did when they were young.
“I don’t do it for the pay though,” he said.