ANGELA BRANDT HELENA (AP)
Law enforcement agencies nationwide are having trouble recruiting eligible applicants. "Montana is no different," according to Helena Police Chief Troy McGee. His department used to see about 30 applicants per open position and now gets about 10, he said. McGee cites a few reasons for the drought in interested parties, including that many of those who would have applied are in the military, the state has a low unemployment rate and competition with federal agencies with large marketing budgets. "It's been quite a struggle," McGee said. Great Falls Police Capt. Tim Shanks agreed. "Montana is not typically a highwage state and in today's time that's what people want," he said. "Now, depending on the young folks and their education, they can go to the private sector and get six figures in nothing flat." Many younger people considering a career in law enforcement also will gravitate toward larger departments in more populated states in order to garner a heftier pay check, Shanks said. Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Cheryl Liedle, whose deputies earn a starting wage of $44,000 a year, said she does not see financial issues as the cause of the lack of qualified applicants. "Law enforcement is very stressful. I think a lot of that is intimidating to people," Liedle said. "It is a difficult job and a lot of people don't want to put in that amount of work to get a paycheck," she added. Liedle said she asks applicants tough questions like, "Are you ready to hold a dying kid in your arms?" To which, she said, some interviewees don't offer an answer but instead turn pale and walk out of the room. "At the same time, it can be by far the most satisfying job you can ask for," she added quickly. The job can be physically, mentally and emotionally taxing, Liedle said. "You have to be Superman in a lot of ways. Does Superman get paid $44,000 a year?" She said. The Great Falls Police Department employs 82 officers and two open positions at a starting wage of $37,000 a year. "I remember, when I started 28 years ago, we got almost 600 applicants for 13 jobs. I think back then public service was a pretty good thing to get into," Shanks said. The Helena Police Department is currently looking for three new officers, whose pay will start at nearly $37,000 annually. So far, 11 people have applied, of which six passed initial testing but none met all of the qualifications, McGee said. To be considered for a law enforcement position in the Helena department, at the very least one must be at 18 years old, have a high school diploMa or GED, be a U.S. citizen and not have any felony charges on their record. Initial tests include physical and written components. To save money on the testing and to widen the hiring pool, 13 agencies, including the Helena and Great Falls police departments and the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff's Office, formed the Montana Law Enforcement Testing Consortium about a year ago. Candidates must do a series of physical feats including push-ups and a timed run along with completing a standardized writing and arithmetic test. The consortium finished its first cycle of testing in December and is gearing up for another round. Potential candidates can apply until Jan. 27 for nine testing sites across the state. Applicants can have their results sent to one or all 13 agencies. The testing starts on Feb. 26 in Glasgow and concludes in Helena on March 10. For more information, go to www.bozeman. net/MTLETC. The consortium plans to have three testing cycles a year. If applicants fail a component of the tests, they can retest during a subsequent round. Havre Police Chief George Tate, who receives an average of three candidates per opening, said he is so far pleased with the consortium because it made his last hire quicker. Yet he wishes his department would get higher numbers of applicants. In order to gather more of an applicant pool, according to Jason Abend, executive director for the National Law Enforcement Recruiters Association, Montana agencies should follow the national trend of looking for out-of-state hires. Recruiting in places like Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota is a struggle because they are tough places to get people to relocate to so the states are dependent upon their own residents, which are smaller in number. "That's not saying they are not good departments but the population to draw from is not there and nationally everyone is having a problem," he said. Abend's suggestion for Montana agencies is to look out of state for potential employees who are "tough, outdoorsy people" able to deal the Treasure State's sometimes harsh weather conditions. Capt. Shanks said the Great Falls Police Department has been getting a lot of phone calls from big city folks who are looking for a smaller town in which to move. "They say they are looking for a better place to raise their kids, which is great for us," he said. "We might not have the same pay but you have to look at quality of life." East Helena Police Chief Dale Aschim said he largely depends on officers from out of state to fill his four full-time positions. According to Montana Highway Patrol Trooper John Spencer, the number of applicants the agency sees has remained about the same over the years due to proactive actions in recruiting. Where people used to come to the patrol, the agency now has to seek out applicants. The patrol, which offers a starting wage of $38,000 a year, has one big hiring cycle a year, Spencer said. The proactive efforts, which include radio and television ads, began in 2003, he said. "Yes, it is getting harder to recruit, but the people are still out there," Spencer said.