Lexington police try to capitalize on mayor's support for new hires

jwarren@herald-leader.comApril 11, 2012 

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Lexington Fraternal Order of Police president Mike Sweeney says Mayor Jim Gray's proposal this week to add more police officers is good, if enough new officers are hired.

"It's a step in the right direction," Sweeney said Wednesday. "But are they going to just keep manpower at status quo, or are they going to try to increase our authorized strength? I don't hold out a whole lot of optimism for any large increase."

The Division of Police said Wednesday that it is ramping up its current officer recruiting drive in the wake of Gray's comments in his annual budget address on Tuesday. During his address Tuesday, Gray called for two new police recruiting classes and two new training classes for firefighters, in addition to classes already under way.

Lexington police said in a news release that it will accept online recruit applications until midnight April 17. The recruiting campaign began about three weeks ago. Police manpower has fallen in recent years, and the division now has 505 officers on its rolls, officials said.

Meanwhile, Lexington Division of Fire said Wednesday that it is preparing a recruiting plan so the department will be ready when it gets authorization to hire. As many as 145 Lexington firefighters could be eligible for retirement next January, department spokesman Ed Davis said.

"After the mayor's announcement, we decided that since we had a little time left, we should make a push to get some more folks into the application process," police spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts said Wednesday. "I would say that the aim ... is to try to stem the flow of attrition we've been seeing."

It hasn't been determined just how many new officers would be brought on board in the current drive, she said.

About 45 Lexington police officers retire or move to other jobs each year, and recent recruiting has not kept pace with attrition, Roberts said.

About 350 people have applied so far in the current police recruiting campaign, a number Roberts characterized as "low." About 1,200 applied during the last recruiting effort in 2011, she said.

"It's not about quantity so much as it is about quality," she said. "Three hundred and fifty isn't necessarily disappointing. But we find that the more applicants we have, the better the quality of the people we can find."

According to Sweeney, the Lexington police department will need to recruit heavily for the next few years to get to where it should be.

Sweeney says Lexington should have more than 700 police officers, based on FBI guidelines suggesting that cities should have 21/2 officers per 1,000 population.

"An acceptable number to us, I'd say, would be somewhere in the 600 to 650 range," he said Wednesday. "But again, that doesn't get us to where we should be."

According to Sweeney, Lexington police had 693 officers on the street in 2007. The city's crime rate has risen by 21.5 percent since then, as police manpower has declined, he argued.

Lexington police manpower could fall below 500 if the department had a "mass exodus" of people like the one the fire department experienced last year, Sweeney said. That's why the size of the new police recruiting classes is important, he said.

"Is it going to be a class of five, or a class of 50," he said. "They cut our authorized strength from 597 to 537 in the last year and a half. So, we're down about 60 officers right off the bat."

The police department has 24 people in training, Roberts said. But the training program takes more than eight months, so those new recruits won't be ready to go on the street until about November, she said.

Candidates selected from the current application process, which ends next Tuesday, will undergo a lengthy evaluation process, including background checks, written tests, interviews and a physical fitness evaluation.

That means those ultimately accepted probably won't start actually training until late summer or early fall, Roberts said.

People who applied to the police department last year and weren't selected will get no special consideration in the new recruit drive and must reapply, officials said.

Jim Warren: (859) 231-3255.

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