MY VIEW • Portland's wages don't entice new officers
by: Tribune file photo, Recruiting remains a challenge for the police bureau, not just because the job is more demanding but because Portland pays less than other cities nationwide.

Assume for a moment that you're running a fairly large business, one with roughly 1,000 professional employees. You're having a difficult time finding employees, so you send recruiters across the country, put ads in every newspaper that might draw applicants, redo your application process to make it more user-friendly and create a Web page that touts the virtues of employment with you.

None of this works, and you still can't meet your recruitment goals, so you broaden the employment pool.

Though it's well-established that applicants with a bachelor's degree likely will perform better on the job, you eliminate that requirement. You conduct an intense search for employees willing to make lateral transfers from other employers.

You participate in job fairs, target specific areas of the country for recruitment, and streamline your application process again. You still get no results.

In the meantime, it's become apparent that the wages you pay have slipped from their former position of prominence. Though you're the largest employer in the state and the job you expect your employees to perform is the most difficult in the state, you no longer pay the highest wages.

Other employers of a similar size - against whom you compete for applicants - have increased their wages by 25 percent at the same time you've given your employees 3 percent raises.

Even though you can tell applicants that this is Portland, a special place to live, you find that they are 'voting with their feet' by going to work for other employers that pay substantially more than you do.

Just as worrisome, you find you can no longer hold onto employees after their earliest retirement date, leading to a serious shortage of experience in critical positions.

What do you do?

That's precisely the situation facing the Portland Police Bureau. It's been more than 10 years since the bureau has been at full staffing.

Because it can't recruit applicants with the wages it pays, the city has abandoned the requirement instituted by former Chief Charles Moose that you have to have a bachelor's degree to be a police officer.

Recruiting trips result in recruiters coming home empty-handed. Staffing is so short that overtime has become a fact of life for Portland's police officers and getting a day off in the summer is as rare as a sunny day in February.

To be sure, there's a national recruiting crisis for police officers. With the increasing difficulty and sophistication of the job, the constant threats of lawsuits, the political pressures and the dangers of the work, it's not surprising that those who used to seek a public service career in policing are looking elsewhere.

The crisis is particularly acute in Portland, however, where only 380 officers are assigned to patrol the city's streets.

While the city has stood on the sidelines, competing police agencies have raised their wages and have successfully turned the tide on recruitment woes.

Phoenix recently gave its officers a 13 percent raise over two years, and four-year deals were put into place in Long Beach, Calif.; Oakland, Calif.; Honolulu and San Francisco, all resulting in raises of roughly 25 percent. Most importantly from the standpoint of Portland police officers, Seattle just raised its police wages by a minimum of 25 percent, a move avowedly designed to deal with recruiting problems.

Portland's raise this year? Just 3.8 percent.

It's past time for the City Council to squarely face this problem. All the talk in the world can't erase the fact that until we give a competitive raise to our police officers, we'll never be able to compete for the best applicants for the job.

More importantly, we'll never be at full staffing and will continue to be unable to put enough officers on the street.

Robert King is president of the Portland Police Association. He lives in Northwest Portland.

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