Economic woes make police work appealing

Cindy Iverson spent the past 20 years trimming cuticles and buffing fingernails.

Now she’s on her way to fighting crime.

The 38-year-old married mother of two isn’t the typical Las Vegas police recruit, but as the economy soured and work as a manicurist slowed, she saw an opportunity to pursue a career that would give her financial security and fulfill her interest in law enforcement.

Iverson is not alone.

In recent months, record numbers of people like her have flocked to local police departments as their industries have felt the brunt of the limping economy.

In a state with near-record unemployment rates, police jobs with steady paychecks and good retirement benefits are an attractive option for workers who have been laid off or face financial insecurity.

Other candidates, such as real estate agent Santino DeWreede, saw the economic slump as a chance to finally make a career change they already had been considering.

The 28-year-old former college baseball player always wanted to be a cop, but the good money during the housing boom and flexible hours in real estate kept him there for several years.

Late last year, DeWreede decided to leave the real estate industry.

“I could see the writing on the wall,” he said.

He now is in the late stages of the hiring process with the Metropolitan Police Department.

Since the economy nose-dived last fall, police agencies have seen a significant spike in the number of people showing up to take the initial wave of tests.

At this month’s test for the Metropolitan Police Department, 585 people tested. Last April’s test had 268. The Henderson Police Department had 670 people take its test in January, nearly doubling the 377 from a year earlier. And in North Las Vegas, 807 people took the police test this month, up from the 325 who tested in March 2008 for both police and corrections officer.

Officer Todd Rasmussen, a recruiter for the Henderson Police Department, said the flailing economy is at the heart of the spike. He gets a lot of calls from real estate agents, mortgage brokers and others in the struggling real estate industry.

“When business was good, they didn’t really think about becoming a police officer, but now it seems like a pretty good gig,” he said.

The three police agencies are among the best-paying in the country, with salaries starting around $50,000.

Recruiters emphasize, however, that police work is far more than a 9-to-5 job with a steady paycheck. It’s a commitment, a career, a calling.

“We’re not looking for job seekers,” said Sgt. Jason Harney, a Las Vegas police recruiter.

Recruiters usually can sniff out the candidates who are more interested in the money than the job. They remind candidates about the commitment being a police officer entails, including long hours, working holidays and graveyard shifts, and confronting people who want to hurt them.

Some candidates don’t even realize the job could require them to shoot somebody, Harney said.

They “watch the average movie or TV show, and they think it’s all going to be glamorous. But it’s not.”

An extensive testing and screening process is designed to weed out poor recruits from the candidate pool. The process includes written and physical fitness tests, interviews, psychological screenings and background checks.

By the end of the process, typically about 10 percent of the original candidate pool will qualify for a police job, said Jeff Church, a retired Reno police officer who provides recruitment consulting to police departments across the country.

Since police departments spend about $50,000 to recruit and train each officer, it’s important to screen out unqualified or uncommitted candidates early in the process, he said.

Although the lagging economy is attracting more questionable candidates to police work, agencies welcome the boost in recruitment numbers, which bring a broader candidate pool and more diversity to the force, he said.

Diversity includes not only race and gender, but life and job experiences. For example, someone from the banking industry would be valuable for investigating financial crimes, he said.

But police work isn’t for everybody. Without the commitment and the instincts, which Church calls a “gene for danger and excitement,” police candidates are better off looking at another line of work, he said.

Iverson, all 5 feet 3 inches and 111 pounds of her, said she’s committed to the job.

After going back to school and getting her degree in criminal justice, she tested for the Metropolitan Police Department in December but failed the physical fitness test by one push-up.

She kept training and passed the test a month later, and she continues regular physical training as she prepares to enter the June police academy.

That academy class will include the last wave of new Las Vegas police officers hired under the More Cops initiative, a quarter-cent sales tax increase that prompted a four-year hiring binge by local police departments.

The Metropolitan Police Department hired 600 officers with the tax money. North Las Vegas and Henderson each hired about 100 new officers.

But the slumping economy has cut into county sales tax revenue, forcing North Las Vegas and Henderson to keep about 20 positions unfilled because they don’t have the money to fund them.

State lawmakers this month delayed implementing the second half of the sales tax increase because of the economy. The final bill has yet to be voted on, but if it passes, the sales tax would increase by an eighth of a cent in 2011.

New hiring under that funding probably would start in early 2012.

So police agencies have more interested candidates than ever but have few places to put them.

Contact reporter Brian Haynes at bhaynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0281.

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