On a Saturday morning last month at a Holiday Inn on the outskirts of Omaha, Neb., Julie Kearns and Debby Simmons were passing out written examinations to 67 area residents who wanted to be police officers.
Except they didn't want to be police officers in Omaha. They wanted to work in Orange County, Calif.
Kearns and Simmons are Orange County sheriff's deputies. The applicants had responded to newspaper ads that Sheriff Brad Gates had run in the Omaha and Lincoln, Neb., newspapers: " . . . The county's superb climate encourages year-around recreation. . . . This law enforcement agency offers many challenging and rewarding opportunities for men and women over the age of 20."
A federal judge's March 18 contempt order against Gates and the county Board of Supervisors because of jail overcrowding has helped create 118 openings in the sheriff's office, the most at any time in its history.
The June trip to Omaha was the first time the sheriff's office has gone outside California to find candidates for deputy positions.
Board Approved New Positions
U.S. District Judge William P. Gray's order forced Gates to remove inmates from the overcrowded Orange County men's jail in Santa Ana last month and transfer them to the Theo Lacy branch jail in Orange. In turn, more than 200 Lacy inmates were sent to temporary tent facilities at the James A. Musick Honor Farm near El Toro. To cover the expanded honor farm and a planned expansion at Lacy, the board has approved 120 new deputy and civilian staff positions for Gates.
Because few of these positions have been filled, Gates has had to cover 65 eight-hour shifts a week with deputies working overtime and use reserve officers to handle 15 shifts normally staffed by deputies.
"It's the most intense recruiting situation we've ever faced," said Assistant Sheriff Walter Fath, who is in charge of special services.
"We've pretty well saturated our own local area for candidates," said Capt. Andy Romero, who is in charge of personnel and training. "If we're going to fill these positions fast with qualified people, we have to look elsewhere."
Number of Applicants Dropping
Only six out of every 100 applicants, on average, becomes a deputy. In the past, the sheriff's office has held monthly tests where about 200 applicants showed up. This year, it switched to weekly tests to try to draw as many as 800 applicants. But the number of applicants has been dwindling steadily.
The vast majority who apply cannot pass the tests. According to Romero, out of an average of 100 applicants, 56 fail the written test, another 16 fail the orals, 12 are disqualified in background checks, five fail the physical agility tests and two don't pass the medical. That leaves nine, and an average of three of those nine applicants--33%--don't make it through the training academy.
The sheriff's office is so anxious for recruits, Romero said, that it will hire qualified applicants immediately after their tests and place them in civilian jobs while waiting for a spot in a training class.
Of the 67 applicants who took the written test in Omaha, 34 passed, and seven flew to Orange County at their own expense to take the oral examination and the physical agility and medical tests. Six of the seven passed all the tests and are expected to enter the sheriff's 18-week training academy. Academy classes now are running continually to try to keep up with the new openings.
Julie Kearns, 28, who is assigned full time to recruiting, said the Omaha experience convinced her that people are willing to move to Orange County to get into law enforcement.
"There were more questions about what Orange County was like than there were about the job itself," she said. "Some of them didn't know Orange County was in Southern California."
Housing Costs a Concern
Applicants were most interested in whether they could afford the housing costs in Orange County.
A few applicants were concerned about Gates' requirement that all new deputies spend most of their first three years of duty at the Orange County Jail. But most, she said, considered the diversity of assignments available, and the pay scale--$1,879 to $3,100 monthly--more than competitive with other law enforcement agencies.
Omaha was not chosen at random.
"It had been a cold winter, and there was a university class (Creighton University) that had just graduated," Fath said. "We thought there might be some interest there in sunny California."
Kearns and Romero appear to be ideal recruiters. Both say glowing things about the law enforcement agency they work for.
"I can't think of any place around here that offers the career diversity we do," Romero said. He listed some areas of interest for recruits: investigations, the bomb squad, motorcycle teams, dirt bike teams, horse patrols, the dog units, the helicopter units and the harbor patrol.
The emphasis is on hiring minorities, Romero said.
Minimum requirements demand that applicants be 20 years old, in good physical health, have a high school degree or the equivalent, a driver's license and American citizenship or be eligible for citizenship within three years.