Hampton is struggling to hire part-time officers

Police allowed 70, but only 35 working this year

By Patrick Cronin

Hampton Union, Tuesday, July 20, 2010

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

HAMPTON -- Being a part-time summer police officer for the Hampton Police Department is cited often as the best way to get a start in law enforcement.

One former officer called it "cop boot camp," because during the 12 weeks of summer, a new officer responds to calls from routine traffic stops to serious assaults.

"A lot of part-time officers from Hampton have gotten full-time positions in other towns because the other chiefs know what they have gone through," said Billy Lally, a retired lieutenant from the department and current selectman. "Guys who have worked for Hampton are held at high esteem."

And while officials said that is still the case today, as of late, it has been harder to find qualified individuals who can make it through the hiring process and want work at the starting rate of $13.16 an hour.

While the department is allowed to have up to 70 part-timers during the summer, it hasn't even come close to filling that number in decades.

In the last several years, the number of part-timers — usually in mid 50s — has been on the decline.

Deputy Chief Richard Sawyer said the department this summer has 35 part-time officers working a total of 116 shifts per week, the lowest number on record.

"The numbers are getting down there, and the officers who are working are working a lot harder," Sawyer said.

'Behind the eight ball'

Hampton Police Chief Jamie Sullivan said there are a number of reasons why the numbers have declined.

One, he said, was a two-year period in 2005 and 2006 when the department didn't bring any new part-timers on due to budget cuts.

A lot of the younger guys who were a part of the force have moved on to full-time positions in other cities and towns and were not replaced during the time period, he said.

"We got behind the eight ball with it," Sullivan said. "Now we are trying to come back to bring that number back to the place we want it to be. I think it's going to take some time to do it."

100 candidates whittled to six

The department made a push this year with the backing of selectmen to recruit more part-timers for the summer season.

Officials even put out a YouTube.com video giving a snapshot of a variety of activities Hampton police officers see and do every day with a call to "get on board and join the team."

While they had no problem gaining applicants, they did have a problem attracting qualified candidates.

Last fall, they received 100 applicants, but only six made it through the hiring process, which includes a written exam and physical ability test.

"Despite the recruitment efforts we had, it's just difficult to find the people who can meet the qualification of who can be a police officer in this state," Sawyer said.

Standards are strict

Sullivan called the hiring process rigorous because the department wants the best of the best. It's the part-time force it looks to when there is vacancy on the full-time department.

A prospective candidate, he said, needs to meet all of the department's standards, which are based on the standards of New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council.

Besides the written exam and physical test, prospective officers need to pass psychological and polygraph examinations regarding background and behavior.

They also must pass a background check and successfully complete the New Hampshire Police Standards & Training Part-Time Officer Academy.

"You would be amazed by the number of people who come in who know what the standards are and still can't pass it," Sullivan said.

"You will have an officer go through the entire process, but get excluded because they can't do the number of push-ups required."

Lally said it's not unusual to see 100 applicants narrowed down to only a handful of candidates.

"There are so many different layers, and in today's society, there is just not a ton of people who can make it," Lally said.

Lally said, while the standards are strict, they have to be that way.

"You have to get guys that you can go before the town manager and selectmen and say, 'We hired the best guys,'" Lally said. "You don't want a bunch of cowboys out there."

A lot of times, Sullivan said, an officer will make it through the process, but get hired to a full-time position somewhere else.

No raise in five years

Sullivan said retaining the part-time officers is an issue for the department.

While he doesn't think pay is an issue in attracting applicants, Sullivan said it does become a problem when they come on board.

The starting salary for a new part-time officer is $13.16 per hour.

Joe Jones, president of the Hampton Police Association, said the union and the town have been working without a contract for almost six years.

As a result, he said, a good portion of the part-timers have been stuck at that rate of pay.

"You can work at McDonald's and probably make more money, and it's less responsibility," said Jones.

While the department used to attract a lot of teachers to the part-time force, it employs hardly any now.

Jones thinks that is due to pay and the risk involved in being officer.

"These part-time people have other full-time jobs," Jones said. "If they get hurt here, they are (not supported) on the other end.

"They are covered by (workers compensation), but they are only covered for the money they are making here. And that is not a lot of money."

Selectman Richard Bateman is a part-time police officer who's worked every summer for more than 30 years. This year might be his last.

Bateman said there are number of officers who are on a leave of absence this year and a lot are just working the minimum of three shifts a week because the pay is so low.

"People are just not going to sell themselves out at that price anymore," Bateman said.

What can be done?

Jones said there is still no better place for a young officer to start a career than in Hampton.

"You get so much experience in those 12 weeks that you're not going to get anywhere else in New Hampshire," Jones said.

But he said the department needs to do more to retain its current part-timers.

"I think increasing the pay is long overdue, but you can't do that without a contract," Jones said.

Bateman agreed.

"I think we are at a situation where the well is almost tapped dry and it's not being re-watered or cultivated," Bateman said.

Sullivan said with the backing of selectmen, they are going to continue recruitment efforts.

"We are going to continue to seek out qualified candidates who want to come and serve the community," Sullivan said.

While the department is authorized to have 70 part-timers, Sullivan said he would like to see the number of part-time officers first return to the 50 to 55 range.

Sullivan agreed pay also needs to be addressed but that is something selectmen and the union will have to work out at the negotiating table.