By Cassandra Kostal
Where there’s strength in numbers, law enforcement agencies across the country are showing signs of weakness.
No one knows that better than Brad Junker, because as the recruitment sergeant for the Lincoln Police Department, Junker deals with issues of recruitment and retention within the department every day.
Across the country, law enforcement agencies are facing a shortage of officers. Too many leaving and not enough coming in means departments are being stretched thin.
In a beige office with just a couple of photos propped on the desk and a framed “S.W.A.T.” movie poster filling the tight space between the upper cabinets and the tiled ceiling, Junker tries to regain some strength.
Each year, he can typically account for four to six positions he’ll have to fill, often due to retirements or other planned departures from the department.
But the LPD’s hiring needs are never that simple. Junker said on average, the department loses 1.5 officers per month in turnover.
“The hard part is taking into account the folks that either leave on their own accord or get in trouble and lose their job,” he said. “I have to then account for 16 to 20 officers a year that I have to hire, train and get back in here.”
From a growing economy that leaves public sector jobs in the dust to increased media attention that isn’t always positive, police work isn’t as appealing as it used to be.
Public opinion of police is deceptively negative and is only a small part of the problem police are facing,” said University of Nebraska-Lincoln Police Department’s Capt. John Backer.
“I like to call it a kind of public misperception,” he said. “It’s perpetuated by the media more so than it is by people on the street.”
Backer recognizes that this misperception still has a major impact. He said it weighs heavily on current officers and becomes a crucial factor when young adults with an interest in law enforcement are choosing their careers.
LPD recruit Grant Shaw knew there was a lot of negativity about police in the news at the time that he was applying.
“It’s intimidating thinking that any day I go to work, any decision that I make at any time could be front-page news, good or bad,” he said.
But that didn’t stop him. Instead, the media’s portrayal of law enforcement action strengthened Shaw’s resolve to apply.
“It was just one of those things, like, if you want it done right, do it yourself,” he said.
When Shaw joined the Lincoln Police Academy Spring Class of 2020, he was already a certified law enforcement officer. He arrived at LPD after spending a year and a half with UNLPD.
Before pursuing a career in law enforcement, Shaw found himself stuck behind a desk from 9 to 5 after he left the military. Members of his platoon had found careers as police officers, and it had piqued his interest.
“They spoke pretty highly of it, that they loved it,” Shaw said. “You kind of get that same cohesion, kind of like a brotherhood that you would in the military.”
After growing up in Milford, Nebraska, Shaw originally wanted to be a small-town cop. He figured it would be a more comfortable fit. After settling in Lincoln, however, he found a small town within a big city when he joined the UNLPD.
Shaw contributed to the high turnover rate for new officers when he made the switch to LPD, but it wasn’t something he planned. One of his sergeants at UNLPD had started at LPD and decided to go back. When he left, he talked Shaw into looking at what LPD had to offer.
“I thought in the future, I would switch it up. I didn’t think I would switch it up so soon, so quickly.”
Liking what he found at LPD, Shaw didn’t want to wait to make the change. One of the biggest reasons for switching so early on, he said, was that the longer he stayed at UNLPD, the harder it would have been for him to start over.
Back at UNLPD, Backer said there are no hard feelings toward Shaw for making the switch to LPD after only a short time.
“We would rather have an officer be happy where they’re working rather than try to hold onto someone that truly doesn’t want to be there,” he said. “He’s pursuing what he wants to do.”
More and more officers start looking at federal jobs or departments that offer something different. Other times, they are wanting to leave law enforcement altogether.
In a 2019 survey by the Police Execution Research Forum, the length of service for police officers has been showing a significant decline. Within their first year on the job, 29% of officers resign. Within five years, 69% of officers will have left their departments.
Despite the constant need for officers, Junker is adamant about the LPD maintaining its high standards for anyone who wants to join the department. This includes not having any visible tattoos and not having consumed any illegal substances within two years of applying to the force.
“We could get more cops here, but I would have to reduce some of these standards and I don’t want to do that,” he said. “Other cities have reduced their standards and they paid for it in the past.”
Junker said some departments have relaxed their standards on substance use, including marijuana, from a two-year to a one-year minimum prior to application. Later, he said, those departments have done random drug tests to find their officers never stopped taking those drugs.
The numbers are getting slimmer each year, making Junker’s job that much harder. In 2000, the LPD had 1,083 applicants. In 2015, there were 432. And in one half of the recruiting cycle in 2019, there were only 187.
Applicants come from all walks of life, bringing their life experiences with them. The average age during the first 2020 cycle was almost 27 years old. They often spend time in the military, going to college, or working in another industry before finding their place in law enforcement.
“I feel like the people that come in here have always known that this is what they wanted to do in some form,” Junker said. “Most applicants who want to become police officers have known that they want to be police officers, or some kind of a public servant, for a long time.”
The process for hopeful applicants to become officers of the law is worth it if they truly want it, but it’s never an easy path to take. From the time applications are submitted to the time they’re sworn in, approximately a year and a half will have passed.
The LPD runs two recruitment cycles every year that align with the department’s academy timelines. When the hiring cycle begins online, applications are accepted for six weeks. After the window closes, Junker’s work begins.
The first round of testing, a written exam, is scheduled three weeks after the window closes. If this test is passed in the morning, applicants move onto a series of physical tests in the afternoon.
The interviews begin two weeks later. Afterward, the panel of interviewers ranks the applicants based on their results and conditional offers are given to those at the top.
If the next academy will consist of 15 recruits, then conditional offers will be given to the top 25 with the knowledge that not all of them will pass the next tests.
The next four tests take up the better part of a month and include a psychological evaluation, a polygraph, or lie detector test, a medical physical and another written test. If these tests are passed, final offers are issued.
By the time final offers are given, the tests have been going on for about four months. Recruits then must wait another three months before they begin their academy training. After that, they’re subjected to rigorous field training at the department before they’re out on their own.
It all takes a lot of time, and for good reason.
“We’re going to release them into the community with a gun and the power to take people’s civil liberties from them,” Junker said. “It’s pretty important that we vet people to make sure that they are going to do the right thing, especially when nobody’s looking.”
The community expects integrity and trustworthiness from the LPD, and that’s what Junker wants to deliver.
“The one thing you can’t do in law enforcement is lie,” he said. “You can shoot the file cabinet in your office, which somebody here has done, and you’ll keep your job. But as soon as you lie about something small…you’re going to get fired.”
Junker looks for someone rational, calm under pressure and disciplined. Someone who is intelligent and can problem-solve. Someone who can give themselves to the greater cause.
“Because nothing here gets done all by yourself,” he said.
The next LPD academy will begin in mid-July. After several weeks of training and additional testing, the newest class of LPD officers will be ready to serve the public for however long they choose to remain with the department.
For Grant Shaw, law enforcement is where he belongs. Breaking the turnover cycle, he plans to stay with the LPD and serve the Lincoln community for the next 30 years.