ELYRIA — The next crop of Elyria police officers will have to come to the city with more than just the desire to protect and serve as the city is experimenting with the practice of hiring candidates who are academy-trained and -certified in an effort to save time and money in getting officers on the streets.
Hiring those who have already worked at smaller law enforcement agencies or have taken and passed the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy exam could be the new norm in Elyria if the benefits — cutting four to five months off the new hire program and saving upward of $35,000 per recruitment — works out well for the city.
It hasn’t been tried before because of the Elyria city charter, but that has changed and Police Chief Duane Whitely said he is excited about what it now means.
“This is about time and money in addition to getting the best people on the streets,” he said. “When we hire a new recruit and have to send them to the academy, we can’t use them for a good five months because they are in school. Not to mention, we are paying salary and benefits for someone who is not on the road.”
Whitely said experience has taught him that hiring someone with training bodes well for the department.
“Years ago, we brought someone in from the Akron Police Department, and he was a great officer,” he said.
Four new hires will enter the department’s training program in the coming weeks after completing several background checks — medical, psychological and even a lie detector test — that are in their final stages. The first of the year is being tentatively looked at as the start date.
“We’re moving as quickly as we can,” Whitely said. “But right now, no one has been officially hired.”
Four is the limit of candidates who can go through the training program without shortchanging training or overwhelming officers. Whether these new hires will need less training because of their prior experience is still yet to be known.
“We have every intention of putting them through the full program, but adjustments will be made based on their skill and expertise,” Whitely said.
It has been two years since the idea of recruiting through lateral transfers was put into motion. But it was not as easy as saying only candidates with experience need apply.
First, the city had to decide if it should change the city charter to make it possible and then get voter support to seal the deal. The successful charter change paved the way for the Civil Service Commission to ramp up the recruitment process, all aimed at finding a way to stop the dramatic drop in the number of sworn officers in the department over the last year.
“We planned to lose two officers to retirement in 2013, but we lost seven, including three officers that went to work for state law enforcement agencies,” Whitely said. “We didn’t plan to lose so many at one time, and we are taking steps to rectify that as quickly as possible.”
Bruce Shade, assistant safety service director in charge of public safety, said once the first four officers are trained and ready for the road, four more will join the program and possible even two to four more candidates well into 2014.
“We have a budget that can support 85 officers, but have just 77 sworn officers at this time,” he said. “We have to change and get into the habit of aggressively hiring and training officers so we don’t dip down this low again. As we lose officers to retirement and resignation, in an ideal world, we should have candidates ready to step into those positions.”
The effect of so few officers has resulted in high overtime, but Whitely said not a reduction in work.
“We still have a job to do, and my guys have done a phenomenal job living up to that responsibility, which is a testament to the kind of officers we have in the department,” he said. “We are doing more with less, but having that kind of overtime is not good because it’s exhausting to the good officers we do have.”
The 85 officers are paid through the general fund and police levy as well as some federal grants.
Whitely said the department’s authorized strength is 102 officers — which residents will remember as being the selling point behind passing a levy earmarked specifically for the department — but that benchmark has never been reached. The closest the department has come is 100 officers for a short while in 1998.
“I’m always pushing for more officers, but realistically it always comes down to what the city can afford,” he said. “My budget is for 85 officers.”
Whitely said he has not submitted his 2014 budget request yet, but he does not anticipate his budget growing.