In a city struggling to reinvent itself in the face of a decades-long reputation for crime and violence, Chester now has a number of new police officers starting their field training, the Spirit has learned.
These officers, according to Chester Police Commissioner Otis Blair, will be paired with senior officers on street patrols in the coming weeks and they are a mixture of veterans with experience from other police forces from urban municipalities that mirror Chester to rookies right out of the Delaware County Community College Municipal Police Academy.
“They are already familiar with law enforcement,” Blair said, “so we just have to familiarize them with our procedures.” But he added that the re-acclimation process can be a hang up.
Novice officers, unlike their experienced counterparts, are viewed as tabula rasa or Latin for “blank slate,” and void of any recollection of any former departments’ policies and procedure which allows them to easily adapt.
The new officers apparently follow the “hiring” of eight officers sworn-in earlier this year and five others announced subsequent to that by Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland in response to community outrage over a spate of shootings and killings.
Crime reports show that so far this year, there have been roughly 52 shootings, an estimated 10 homicides, and city records reveal that there are currently 26 vacancies in the Chester Police Department for various positions, despite the addition of the eight new officers. The reported vacancies are in conjunction with the exodus of 20 officers back in January due to retirement and lures for opportunities elsewhere.
The five hires Kirkland announced, however, were never sworn-in.
“Just because we hired a certain number, there’s still a selection process,” Blair said. “Some (recruits) get washed out for a number of reasons:tThey didn’t pass the background checks; didn’t finish the academy, they couldn’t pass the medical exam or they just changed their minds.”
Recruiting new police personnel has not been easy for the city. Chester police officials have posted employment openings in newspapers and even attended a nationwide law enforcement recruiting event in Philadelphia in March to find prospective candidates. Those efforts led to the hiring of the additional officers, Blair said.
But Chester’s not alone in the difficulty to hire people. Departments all over the country report similar difficulties and a national report projected new police growth at about four percent slower than usual. According to 2012 Uniform Crime Reporting data, the ratio of cops to population hit its lowest level since 1997.
The add-on of veteran officers versus rookies boils down to cost, according to Blair, because the city doesn’t have to foot the $4,364 tuition per applicant for DCCC’s 21-week course because the veterans have been previously trained and certified.
Blair said the national economy and current police trends are also impacting Chester’s ability to attract personnel.
“When the economy is bad,” Blair said, “the applicant pool grows because people want jobs with pay and benefits. But we’re also competing with other departments. When the economy is good, (applications) go down because people have other options.”
Further complicating the city’s ability to attract people, Blair believes, are the educational mandates of today’s police personnel (many departments require college degrees) and the quality of life perceptions of Chester as seen through the lens of major media.
“We used to get 200-300 (police) applicants (per year) in the 1990s,” Blair said, “but now we’re lucky to get 100. People don’t want to be a cop anymore because of the negative publicity. Cops are always in the media spotlight for one reason or another (and) some can’t handle that type of pressure.”