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Many jobless seek work with local police agencies
Local police officials say the bad economy has had a silver lining. They're flooded with applicants for one of the hardest jobs to fill - law enforcement.
Policing agencies have traditionally struggled to fill all their openings, because of high turnover and tough hiring standards. And some now have even more jobs, thanks to federal stimulus money.
The recession, though, created a hirer's market: competition for the jobs is fierce, with hundreds of applications at local agencies.
"It's probably just a matter of time as the financial blows of the country continue, I think you're going to see a lot of the agencies catching up, and filling up,'' said Capt. Shawn Fagan at Boca Raton's police department, which has carried openings for years, but had only one left at the beginning of the month.
People squeezed out of jobs in fields that have been especially hard hit in the recession, such as real estate and finance, are among the new recruits, he said.
One of them is Bill Snyder, who at age 36 is called "grandpa'' by his fellow police cadets. Snyder left behind a lifetime in the restaurant business to become a police officer.
He and his family moved to South Florida from New Jersey in April 2006 for "what was supposed to be an easier life.'' They sold a restaurant up north, and built a new one in Pompano Beach, in the Festival Flea Market Mall food court. Then the economy buckled.
"I was having trouble making ends meet. It just wasn't happening,'' he said Thursday. " ... Foot traffic declined dramatically, horribly, because of the economy.''
Sheriff's deputies who worked off-duty details at the mall befriended him, and encouraged him to become an officer.
"I've always wanted to do it. I've always had the thought in my mind to do it, but really, in all honesty never had the guts to do it,'' he said. Policing was an option for someone like Snyder, who lacks a college degree.
The married father quit smoking, started working out, took the physical fitness test and passed. Margate hired him.
Snyder is among the fresh class of hired officers working through the police academy in Davie, ready to be deployed to their new jobs in Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, Coconut Creek, Coral Springs, Davie, Margate, Pembroke Pines, Hallandale Beach, the Seminole reservation, Boca Raton and Sunny Isles Beach, according to assistant dean Kenneth Shives at the Institute of Public Safety in Davie.
Linda Wood, dean of the institute, said more people are testing for law enforcement "than ever before.''
Since June of last year, close to 15,000 people have shown up to take the preliminary fitness, swimming and written tests that are necessary before applying to law enforcement agencies, officials there said. From December through July, the classes spiked, with about double the typical crowds. Tables had to be added to the testing room. Sometimes more than 100 people were there to take tests, compared to 40 to 60 previously.
In Palm Beach County, the Criminal Justice Institute has an open enrollment policy, where cadets can pay their own way through the school even if they haven't secured jobs as future officers. That institute has seen a bump in the number of students paying their way through the school. In summer 2007, there were 21 students paying their way through the institute; that number this past spring was 40.
Individual agencies are hoping to use the surge in applications to finally fill jobs.
Fort Lauderdale's police department has been hiring continually for years, fighting to keep up with turnover in an occupation where employees can retire after 20 years. In the first six months of this year, 1,257 people applied for policing jobs with Fort Lauderdale, which is nearly as many as applied in all of 2008.
"When the economy is bad, and unemployment is up, everyone wants to be the police,'' said police Chief Frank Adderley, who has four jobs open and expects to hire 12 more officers with federal funds.
At Hollywood Police Department, 21 officer jobs are open. Last year 447 people applied at the department, but this year, that number had been far exceeded by the end of summer, with 546 people applying, according to spokesman Manny Marino.
Still, most people who apply don't meet the grade.
"It's very difficult to hire police officers,'' Marino said. "The process is so difficult. There's so many hurdles to it. And we are all competing for the same talent pool.''
As Fort Lauderdale police spokesman Sgt. Frank Sousa put it: "A lot of people apply for things they shouldn't apply for.''
Many don't realize how clean a police officers' background has to be, from drug and criminal past, to driving record and psychological fitness. In Lauderhill, for example, officers are warned they'll have to certify they haven't smoked cigarettes in the last year, or plan to in the future.
Only about 5 percent or the applicants, or fewer, get a second look.
ONLINE: See if you meet the standards, and view interviews with Snyder and three other police cadets, at SunSentinel.com/browardpolitics. Brittany Wallman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4541.