Is law enforcement still a desirable career? Certainly there are those lured toward choosing a career in policing. But the fact remains that a career in law enforcement is not as desirable as it used to be. This is due, in part, to the negative publicity and stigma attached to the job in the wake of many highly televised events of alleged and actual cases of police misconduct.
This lack of career appeal is having an effect on hiring, and when you can’t hire enough people to fill police cars to answer calls for service (as they never stop coming in), commanders are reluctant to fill other positions in the department that may be shorthanded, such as the aviation unit.
When police officers must effect an arrest of a violent offender, generally it’s not pretty. When such a confrontation is caught on a body cam, at first glance it looks terrible. This is where the so-called experts step in and criticize. These same “experts” would never dream of getting on a commercial airliner to tell the pilots how to fly the airplane. After all, those guys are highly trained professionals that quite clearly know what they are doing. Yet when it comes to police work, everyone — including those who have never put on a uniform, spent 10 minutes in a patrol car (other than riding in the back after an arrest) or gone through a six- to nine-month police academy — suddenly become experts on how the officer should have handled the situation. When I started my career 30 years ago, we didn’t have to worry about every action we took ending up on the six-o’clock news. Today everyone has a video camera, and they are recording. This intense scrutiny and second guessing is discouraging people from choosing a career in law enforcement. Can you blame them?
Those who chose this career path never expect to get rich. I still believe it’s a calling. U. Renee Hall, new chief of the Dallas Police Department, recently blamed millennials for hiring woes in the city. She believes millennials are not attracted to the job because, as she stated during a press conference, “they want all days off and to be chief in six months.” Far be it for me to dispute my new boss. She does make good points.
It didn’t help that prior to her hiring, the mayor and city administrators managed to convince the Texas state legislature to rewrite state law while revamping the police and fire pension plan. Politicians and administrators needed to clear the way for a $1 billion bond package for the projects they wanted. So instead of selling pension bonds to fix a troubled police and fire pension system like they did with the civilian pension in 2005, they had the legislature change the rules.
With Dallas having the lowest starting salary of any department in the metroplex, the pension plan was one of the best hiring points the city had. The state legislature raised the minimum retirement age from 50 to 58 and eliminated many of the extras that would encourage a prospective recruit to join the department, even at a lower wage than other competing departments. It also encouraged many who were eligible to retire to actually do so.
Now that the dust has settled over the pension debacle, the Dallas Police Department is nearly 600 sworn officers short of mandated strength. It’s having an adverse effect on response times to calls, and most specialized units around the department are operating at minimum staffing levels, including the helicopter unit. Command pilot staffing at our unit is now nearly half-strength, and we have been told that may not change any time soon.
If we are allowed to fill an open slot, we choose prospective pilot candidates from within the department. They must be a senior corporal (usually with a minimum of 4 to 5 years of patrol experience) and possess an FAA private helicopter rating. Many departments around the U.S. have similar requirements, though some will train police officers with no prior aviation experience. These candidates are put through a six-week tactical flight observer program, and if they can handle the job, which is unquestionably the most difficult part of being an airborne police officer, they start pilot training.
Becoming a command pilot requires 350 hours in our patrol helicopter, the Bell 206B3 — a process that takes at least two years. Our dilemma is training replacement pilots. Soon we just won’t be able to do it. In two years, Dallas may be forced to do what many departments around the country are doing — hiring experienced civilian pilots.