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Suffolk's police recruiters roll out ad campaign
By DAVE FORSTER, The Virginian-Pilot
November 27, 2006

SUFFOLK - For a police force stretched thin by vacancies, the turnout was not encouraging.

Suffolk police recruiters narrowly avoided a shutout during a six-hour open house last weekend at their downtown precinct. The sole serious inquiry came from a woman seeking information for her son, who is serving in Iraq.

Lt. Steve Patterson summed up the lesson.

"We can't expect them to come to us all the time," he said toward the end of the event. "It's just like anything else. You've got to be a salesman."

A team of nine Suffolk police officers, ranging in rank from patrol to captain, is trying to figure out exactly how to do that.

Called the "recruitment and retention team," the group has spent the past three months devising ways to reverse a more than 18 percent vacancy rate, the highest among police departments in metropolitan South Hampton Roads. One of every five spots was empty as of Nov. 17, according to the city's Department of Human Resources.

Recruiting is a common struggle for police departments, where new officers often face dangerous, demanding work at low salaries, said Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police.

Suffolk has its own challenges. Despite the city's growth, "we're still sort of viewed as a sleepy country town," said Capt. Stephanie Burch, the recruitment team leader.

The Suffolk police force is the smallest in metropolitan South Hampton Roads, but it covers a city that at 430 square miles is the largest, geographically, in Virginia. Patterson touted the opportunities his department provides to work a variety of cases, whereas the larger departments are more specialized.

Suffolk pays new recruits $32,785. That's more than Chesapeake and Portsmouth and slightly less than Norfolk. Virginia Beach pays the highest, at $36,088.

The empty positions in Suffolk have hurt morale among officers, said Lt. J. Brandsasse, who supervises a downtown squad of two sergeants and 16 patrol officers.

Overtime is common, but the biggest frustration for officers is that they can't be proactive and do community police work because they're too busy responding to calls, Brandsasse said.

"It breaks my heart that I can't give them the manpower," she said. "We're just a reactive force."

Much of the recruitment team's focus is on increasing Suffolk's profile in Hampton Roads.

Toward that end, the recruiters hope to advertise the department like never before. Everything, it seems, is on the table: radio, the Internet, TV, buses, billboards, shopping malls, theaters.

"The name of the game is name recognition and branding our agency," Burch said.

They've already begun to turn their squad cars into recruitment tools.

The rear bumpers on about eight vehicles now boast the motto "Become a Hometown Hero."

The rear doors and rear windows display the department's Web address,

The Web site also will be overhauled.

Suffolk's recruiters also are exploring financial incentives and seeking help from businesses and residents.

Investigator Ryan Sieg has researched a program used in Sacramento, Calif., where the police trained community leaders to act as recruitment liaisons for the department. Sieg is trying to plan the program while working around his regular police duties, just as everyone else on the recruitment team does.

All the work must be paid for relatively cheaply, and sometimes creatively, because the department's budget doesn't set aside money for recruiting.

One team member is researching the possibility of finding businesses to pay for billboards that could say, "(Business name) and Suffolk Police want you to become a hometown hero."

This month the department began a series of open houses to draw interest from the community.

So far, the mall has proven more promising.

Recruiters set up a display Nov. 11 at Chesapeake Square mall and recorded 67 genuine inquiries, Patterson said.

Brandsasse, a 12-year veteran of the force, said she feels the department is doing everything it can to fill the spots. "It's going to get better," she said.

Help is on the way. Eight candidates have passed the application process and are in the police academy. They'll hit the streets this spring