For area police departments, joining the ranks is a lengthy process, spanning months of testing, interviews, and, potentially, a desk at the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA). Applicants have to be at least 21, but not older than 36-years-old, if and when they are sworn in as officers.
“We’ve narrowed [the process] down, got it as best as we can without losing integrity in our process, so we’re still –we still strive for best of the best in testing and through the whole process,” said Chief Ken Witkowski, Mishawaka Police Department.
Mishawaka said it consistently receives about 100 applications per recruiting cycle. 50—that tends to be the standard for the Elkhart Police Department, though they’ve seen a drop in the number of applicants over the past few years.
“I think there’s several things,” said Sgt. Chris Snyder. “The availability of other jobs right now, the pay across the country police officers are making, the work schedule. When you first get the job, it’s several years before you get those weekends and holidays off. So and the across the board, the country has become more violent. So those factors play into it.”
The South Bend Police Department recently swore in six officers who came from a pool of more than 80 applicants.
The first step in the hiring process is like other jobs: filling out the application. Police departments say the application is an indicator of a few things, like how meticulous an officer might be in writing police reports.
“We examine the form for completeness, and that’s a legitimate review,” said Chief Ron Teachman, South Bend Police Department. “What do police officers do? They file reports. They do a lot of things, but a fundamental job and task is to fill out a form electronically or hard copy for an accident, robbery, rape, or burglary."
Teachman added reviewers do allow some room for error, though the application should be “substantively complete.”
Then, there’s the background check. Certain criminal offenses, area chiefs said, are a no-go.
“We can’t take people who have a history of drug use and sales. They have to be honest. We’ve had them lie to us in background checks because it’s amazing – it’s a very thorough background check. We uncover a lot of things. We give them all opportunities,” said Witkowski.
Teachman said his staff sometimes makes similar discoveries.
“As if we’re not going to check? I don’t know,” he said. “Felony records, for example, absolute disqualifier, so we take them off the pile.”
The pool of prospective recruits tends to winnow over time – sometimes, applicants are competing for a few openings. Common among local departments are rounds of interviews and tests, like a written exam.
“From that, they’re ranked and graded – 70 [percent] and above in all aspects of the test. In grammar, math, has to be a 70 in each one. Not just an average of 70,” said Witkowski.
To help more recruits make it through the written exam. Witkowski said MPD is selling a practice test and study guide online this year.
“We want more of a diverse group to pass, obviously. We want everybody to pass. We want to interview all 60 people and pick from all of them,” he said.
The Elkhart Police Department is considering similar study measures for the written exam.
“We see quite a few people who don’t make it past the written test regardless of race or gender. So we’ve looked at our written test. We feel it’s a standardized police test, so we think it’s a fair test and we have to look at what we have available,” Snyder said.
Sgt. Chris Snyder said it’s a matter of finding the right time to make sure the study resources are equitably offered.
“We understand the [written exam] is a difficult part for a lot of people, and we probably lose a lot of good applicants that way. Now we have to look at: what can we do? Because we’re not going to lower our standards, but what can we do to bring applicants up to our standards?” Snyder said.
In South Bend, the police department hosts a study session a week before the written exam.
“We don’t give away answers, but we spend hours teaching them how to take a psychometric exam—how to prepare for it, what to do the day of the exam,” said Teachman.
SBPD also analyzes the performance of past recruiting pools on the written test.
“We’re looking back at last several years and where is the biggest impact in both full quantity and quality," said Teachman. “In other words, is there one part of the test that knocks out minorities or females or certain population within that? And we’re not seeing that.”
Bring your running shoes
More hoops in the hiring process sometimes lean down the applicant pool. Take, for example, the physical agility test. In Indiana, departments administer that test using ILEA standards; it generally consists of completing a certain number of push-ups, two timed runs, plus a vertical leap assessment. Chief Teachman said he’s seen more women disqualified from the vertical leap test.
“And for a 4-foot 11, 5-foot female, 16 inches is significant. For a 6-foot-4 male, it’s no big deal,” he said. “So that may be impacting on women, disparately, because they tend to be shorter than men.”
However, SBPD said it loses 50 percent of the hiring pool at the physical test for non-appearance—a trend that has spanned three recruiting classes. The department reminds applicants about the exam by phone and e-mail a week before. To boost attendance, SBPD said it shifted the test to different days of the week.
“We’ve tried on a Sunday, Saturday afternoon—a Tuesday night! We’ve tried varying the times and locations to accommodate folks. Some people apply and weeks after they submit it have a change of heart,” said Teachman.
While SBPD has seen more women struggle with the vertical leap test, Mishawaka said push-ups tend to be the Achilles heel for their female applicants.
“We let them know ahead of time so they can practice,” said Chief Witkowski. “We also found women who haven’t come through on one test will come back stronger the next year with no problems at all.”
Going to the Academy
Applicants also have to brave through oral board interviews, take polygraph, and psychiatric tests. If they pass those steps – and a medical exam – departments extend a conditional employment offer. Next, recruits head to Plainfield, Ind., for the 15-week Indiana Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA). Located outside Indianapolis, ILEA muscles students to handle everything, from firearms, traffic stops, to sexual assault cases.
Field training, swearing in
If and when recruits graduate from the Academy, they are probationary police officers, who then take part in a three to four-month-long field training officer (FTO) program.
“Basically, they’re taking classroom instruction from Plainfield and applying it in the street with an officer who’s been determined to be an excellent mentor, someone whose own performance that we’ve watched tells us they’re role models,” said Chief Ron Teachman.
Teachman said sometimes the departments loses recruits at the FTO stage, though they try to ensure no one falls through the cracks.
“We want our recruits to get through the whole process,” he said.
The Mishawaka Police Department has seen a few people fail to pass the FTO portion.
“At that point, it’s sad. We put them through the Academy and training. We don’t want to see them fail, of course, but some people if it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t fit," said Witkowski.
Upon checking off the FTO stage, officers are sworn in
Capt. Mattie Taylor, of SBPD, vividly remembers her ceremony nearly 33 years ago:
“’I can’t believe I just did this!’ [laughs] You know. ‘This is the coolest thing since sliced bread. I can’t believe I just did this,’ you know?” she recalled. “You wonder, ‘Man I wonder what shift I’m going to work on, where I’m going to work.’ All that kind of thing. And it’s like, ‘Okay, I’m ready. I want to go out here and do what I got to do.’”
Fighting crime—and fires
The Benton Harbor Department of Public Safety formed in 2010, when the City consolidated fire and police service to save money.
“We are trained both as fire and police officers. So if a police officer is on duty, we'll go to the scene, throw on our gear, which we carry in the back of trunk and turn into firemen,” said Acting Dir. Daniel McGinnis.
Out of the 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S, 400 are true public safety departments.
Unlike the Indiana departments NewsCenter 16 visited, Benton Harbor pulls from the pool of officers who make it through the various Michigan state police training schools.
“We don't put people through the Academy. It's too costly. It's about $14,000 to put someone through a four-month academy,” McGinnis said. “Although it is cost prohibitive to put people through the police academy, it’s not as expensive to put them through the fire academy.”
Though the hiring process differs from the Indiana forces, Benton Harbor’s system overlaps in some areas:
“We'll post a position, take an application, do the initial interview. If somebody gets through that, they make it through the initial background phase, get through the second interview,” McGinnis listed. “At that point, they sit down with the Board or chief, interview, and make a conditional offer pending drug tests and a physical.”
“Pluses” on the application
According to the SBPD recruiting brochure, police-related experience (including military service), post-high school education, college internships, and community service stand out on the application.
The Mishawaka Police Department says applicants do not need a college degree nor military experience, but Chief Witkowski considers both merits to be “pluses.”
“Life experience is a plus – we kind of like someone who’s been around for a little bit,” he said.
Acting Dir. Daniel McGinnis with Benton Harbor values loyalty and officers who can readily switch gears between police work and firefighting. He also gives preference to military veterans.
“We have found people coming from the military have a certain skill set, maturity, and amount of loyalty that fits well with us,” said McGinnis.
The Elkhart force also looks for people with strong people skills.
“I think a lot of it is communication to explain why you are doing what you are doing and to understand that 90 percent of the people we’re dealing with are victims in some way. So having some point of empathy for that person but being able to look at things that might not be important to us right now, but that’s the most important thing to that person. So being able to work with them and to communicate with them what will happen what our process is so that they feel that we gave them 100 percent while we were at that call,” said Sgt. Chris Snyder.