ST. PETERSBURG — The St. Petersburg Police Department plans to hire 100 officers this year to replace those who recently have retired or plan to retire.
Training and recruiting division Lt. Gary Dukeman said when he went through the academy 25 years ago, he was part of a big recruiting class. Now with those officers reaching retirement benchmarks, the department has to look at who will fill the ranks in years to come.
After a few years of low hiring numbers — the department brought three people on board in 2013 despite receiving about 600 applications — the department is placing an emphasis on recruiting within the community and targeting diverse populations.
Department recruiter Officer Robert Page said he goes to job fairs at the University of South Florida, other local colleges and universities, military bases and community events such as the Black History Festival at the Midtown Wal-Mart in February.
“We’re a diverse community, so our department has to reflect that,” Dukeman said.
Less than 15 percent of the city’s 523 sworn personnel were identified as black as of Jan. 2, according to department data, compared with a general population about 24 percent black.
The department is striving to recruit racially diverse candidates to join its ranks of 550 officers, and also would like more women to apply. Three female detectives retired in January, which was a hard hit on the department’s gender makeup. About 17 percent of the department’s sworn personnel are women.
The department is using career websites aimed at military personnel and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to get out the word. But getting enough applicants isn’t a problem, Page said; it’s sorting through them all.
“It’s a crapshoot,” Page said. “We don’t know what we’re going to get until the person starts going through the process and we start weeding through their past.”
After going over an application, a potential cadet is brought in for a polygraph test, which Page said is a major stage in the process. Applicants also go on a full shift ride-along with a sworn officer and undergo a psychological examination and a background evaluation.
“We really start digging into their past, question their neighbors, their jobs or places of employment, things like that,” Page said.
Recruits must pass a physical ability test, and then a contingent offer can be extended by Police Chief Anthony Holloway and the assistant chiefs, assuming the individual passes a medical exam.
From the time recruits turn in an application, it can be three to six months before they make it through the hiring process and are fitted for their cadet uniforms. Page said the background investigation has been a bottleneck in the process, but the city is hiring two investigators to help handle the high number of applicants.
While a person might make it all the way through the hiring process, that doesn’t mean they necessarily will be offered a position.
“The chief is going to offer employment to who he feels is the most qualified,” Dukeman said. “So even if an individual made it through the process and is qualified, there might not be a spot for them.”
The high volume of officers being hired this year, however, gives applicants a good shot at a job. Page says he gets calls from recruits who weren’t offered jobs, and encourages them to reapply in a year and work on any issues that might have attributed to them being passed up.
“I tell them, ‘If this is your goal, don’t let anything stop you,’” Page said.
“There’s many officers here who got declined twice, and on the third go-around got hired, so I use them as examples and say, ‘Don’t give up.’”
After an offer is extended, a recruit will go through a “pre-academy” where they learn about administrative issues with the department and to prepare for the academy, a 21-week training program.
Cadets are sent to the St. Petersburg College academy, which costs about $4,000 per student, paid for by the department. Having their police education sponsored by the department is a perk of working with St. Petersburg police, Page and Dukeman said. While St. Petersburg sponsors all its hires who attend the academy, other people put themselves through the school.
“A lot of people can’t do it,” Page said.
To be considered for officer hire, an applicant must be at least 19 years old, a U.S. citizen and a high school graduate or equivalent. While in the academy, the department pays cadets an $18.20 hourly stipend. The starting salary for a new officer is $45,381 annually, or $21.82 per hour.
In the late ’80s, several of the recruiting classes were 20 to 25 people deep, Dukeman said, who are retiring because they are eligible at the age of 55 or after 25 years of service. The new classes this year are expected to fill the holes left behind by those officers, many of whom worked their way up the ranks through the years.
The department looks to hire local residents, but that should not discourage others from applying. Page said he hears from “a lot of people from up North tired of the winter,” and 22 percent of its 546 applicants in 2014 were from out of state.
After only 41 people were hired in 2014, Dukeman said anyone interested in a law enforcement career should apply now.
“This is going to be the time for folks to come on board,” Dukeman said.