Law enforcement recruiting difficulties call for new and creative approaches

by: Buffalo News Editorial Board

“We still wear the white hat,” said Erie County District Attorney John Flynn in a recent News report on law enforcement personnel shortages.

Flynn, in common with many other leaders in criminal justice agencies across the U.S., is pushing against the stigma that clings to law enforcement after the 2020 murder of George Floyd and resulting police reform movements, many of which employed the unfortunate “Defund the police” slogan.

The police haven’t been defunded, but it’s possible that young people who might have otherwise considered honorable careers in this type of public service are reconsidering. “Our young people are saying, ‘I don’t want to be seen as hated, just to wear a uniform,’” said Erie County Sheriff John Garcia.

Maybe the way to overcome this perception is to get beyond traditional black vs. white and love vs. hate dichotomies. Such polarization is part of what is rending American culture across a diverse range of sociopolitical sectors.

There’s no question that – though defunding is, rightly, off the table – the reform movement has gathered steam throughout the United States. After the Floyd murder, chokeholds were banned in six cities; one of them was Buffalo. Other reforms have followed, all of them reasonable, none of them extreme.

But what about the worry that a police officer may automatically be regarded as the enemy? Former Buffalo Human Resources Commissioner Leonard Matarese, who has been involved in law enforcement for 44 years and now runs a consulting company that works with police and fire departments all over the country, agrees that police work has gotten more challenging than ever. But he doesn’t think the challenges are insurmountable and notes that potential recruits who worry about negative attitudes might not be right for the job.

In his consulting work, Matarese advises recruiting “out of the box,” and finding people who are more interested in service than adventure by seeking out the recommendations of leaders of ministries and social services agencies.

A longtime community policing advocate – he contends “community policing is just good policing” – the consultant commends Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia’s “park, walk and talk” program, in which officers get out of the cars and establish meet-and-greet relationships with neighborhood residents.

In talking to retired officers, Matarese has noticed that the positive day-to-day interactions are what they remember, even more or at least just as much as car chases and high-profile arrests.

Finally, the consultant joins Garcia in condemning the New York State civil service process, which has people waiting years to take a test, months more to get it graded, and possibly years more to get a call saying they are invited to join the force – after passing a physical agility test, psychological evaluation and background check.

In other cities, candidates can walk in, apply, take their exams, have their background checks and be offered jobs within days, not months or years. This is a problem that Albany needs to solve.

Law enforcement officers may still wear the white hats, but they also wear the baseball caps, the sun visors and the snow beanies. In other words, just like everyone else, their jobs have gotten tougher in this complicated world. And we all want safe streets and neighborhoods. There should be no room for us vs. them in the relationship between the public and those who take oaths to protect the public. When adversarial abuses and unwarranted attacks arise, on either side, there should be mechanisms in place to address them.

Given the competitive pay and benefits offered in most areas of law enforcement, there should also be ways to emphasize the long-lasting rewards that come with knowing that someone has been helped, whether it’s a life that has been saved or a more prosaic service.

We all need to be the good guys when it comes to attitudes about policing.

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