Summer cop hiring getting problematic

(April 17, 2015) Don’t be surprised if you see fewer fresh-faced young cops on the Boardwalk this summer, or if they look a little more seasoned than seasonal police used to be.

Although not immediate, changes could be in the works for the Ocean City Police Department because of what OCPD Chief Ross Buzzuro has described as a “paradigm shift” in the force’s seasonal staffing.

During a budget session this week, Buzzuro explained to the City Council that the OCPD’s hiring of summer officers has declined by about a third over the past few years. Only 60 to 70 seasonal cops are lined up for this summer, as opposed to the usual cohort of at least 100.

“Our overally failure rate for applicants is now 79 percent,” Buzzuro said. “The bottom line is that people are failing our tests.”

To this end, Buzzuro was scheduled to present a proposal to the council on Tuesday for a department staffing study that would investigate how to “move the police department away from the ‘seasonal police officer’ program as we currently know it,” according to City Manager David Recor’s memo.

The council ultimately voted to table the matter for further discussion by the city’s Police Commission, before the council committing the $52,875 fee for the study. The comprehensive analysis would be performed by the International City/County Management Association’s Center for Public Safety Management, a prominent think tank for local government operations.

But following a closed-door session on the contract with the commission, Buzzuro said the seasonal officer program wasn’t going away anytime soon. He also said that summer numbers could increase in future years, with a bit of work and a serious look at how the department operates.

“The direction now is to look into this as far as how we can make it more attractive to those who have a serious interest in law enforcement,” Buzzuro said.

The OCPD’s summer staffing issue is not because of any local policy, but is because of the way the state regulates Ocean City’s unique ability to raise a seasonal police force. The state has imposed increasingly higher standards on hiring summertime officers and that has pushed the OCPD to a tipping point.

The credentials a person must have to be a police officer in Maryland – from background checks, to hours of training, to firearms proficiency – are controlled by mandates set by the Maryland Police Service Training Commission, which routinely updates and tightens these criteria.

However, the state law enforcement legal clause that allows Ocean City to raise a seasonal force is written outside of these mandates, thus insulating seasonal officers from any changes to the MPTSC’s requirements and allowing them to be held to a less-stringent set of criteria.

The catch, however, is that the clause for the seasonal force requires that Ocean City hire at least 100 seasonal officers in order for qualify for the exception. This was put in place to demonstrate Ocean City’s need, and prevent other less-seasonal departments from demanding parity with the OCPD.

“The main part of the terminology for ‘seasonal officer’ was the requirement for 100 officers minimum,” Buzzuro said. “The reason behind that was that it was an exception for Ocean City, but if you didn’t have that minimum, other departments in the state would ask to follow suit.”

As the resort has grown, however, the OCPD has hired more full-time, year-round officers and throttled back on its seasonal hiring – although it still tested 500 applicants over the winter. This, in turn, allows the department to be more selective with its criteria for summer officers.

“It’s an insurance policy for us to be able to groom these officers and create a safeguard of them having sufficient background,” Buzzuro said. “With the increasing complexity of law enforcement, when we talk about liability and giving these officers the keys to our town, so to speak, I think that’s imperative.”

At this point, Buzzuro noted, the department has found that it does not even need to hire the full 100 officers each summer. Rather, the OCPD’s internal criteria are stringent enough for summer recruits to meet the full mandate of the MPSTC, and not utilize the “seasonal officer” exception.

“All of our officers are going through a complete background check as opposed to the modified checks of past years,” Buzzuro said. “This means they are actually ‘probational officers’ as opposed to ‘seasonal officers.’”

Although they may only work for the summer in Ocean City’s case, such officers can work for up to 12 months as fully qualified police recruits, under MPSTC requirements, before attending a 750-hour police academy and becoming career officers in the State of Maryland.

Seasonal officers have always been subject to criminal background checks, and disqualified from service in the OCPD if they have any serious history. However, the full MPSTC criteria that Buzzuro has moved the department toward also require extensive polygraph screenings and psychological evaluations.

“Because of the enhanced background checks, we’re finding that more applicants don’t pass the polygraph or psych screenings,” Buzzuro said. “Once we realized that our background [screening] meets the full state mandate, we also realized a drop-off in how efficient the seasonal program is.”

This should not be taken, Buzzuro noted, to mean that aspiring police officers are somehow suddenly less competent than in the past.

Rather, due to any number of socio-economic factors, those people with a true commitment to law enforcement as a career are less interested in taking the job as a seasonal position.

Historically, police work has been highly familial. Recruits whose parents and grandparents were police officers were eager to get their feet in the door via a summer job with the OCPD, and later work full-time in their home jurisdiction.

This seems to be less of the case in recent years, with many young people having branched out into different vocations as the economy has demanded a more mobile workforce.

Further, those who have committed to a career in law enforcement are less willing to accept a job where they work full-time for four months, and must do something else in the winter. Such flexibility has become a rare luxury in the current economic climate, especially with the rising cost of education.

Additionally, many potential officers are keenly aware that being a cop for the summer is a far riskier proposition than, say, working at a bar, with the consequences of one’s possible mistakes being infinitely higher. The recent surge of high-profile police misconduct cases has only served to heighten the awareness of such a risk.

These are all just hypotheses, however.

“Whatever the case, it’s a paradigm shift away from this profession, or away from this profession as a seasonal operation,” Buzzuro said.

This does not mean that the department will be going out to hire a full-time officer to replace every seasonal position that comes up short.

The OCPD is continuing to expand efforts to use civilian employees in place of sworn officers. Public Safety Aides are now used for most clerical work, traffic control, and parking tickets. Aides can also issue tickets for municipal ordinance violations.

“We’re looking to expand their role more than what has traditionally been done in order to make the most of that,” Buzzuro said.

The department also plans to continue hiring correctional officers who are trained to handle prisoners and run the city’s detention center, reducing the need for badge-and-gun-carrying officers to work the holding cells at 65th Street.

There is also the possibility of hiring part-time officers – at any time of year – who work primarily in another Maryland jurisdiction, but would we willing to come to Ocean City for a few shifts to pick up some extra cash.

“[The study] is not so much how to do away with the seasonal program, but asking if we’re working at our highest capacity in terms of efficiency,” Buzzuro said.

“We may or may not end up moving away from a seasonal system, but we need to explore the possibilities to address the staffing issue.”

 

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