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Vets Eyed for Cop Jobs, But Fewer Available

Last month, the White House announced that 220 cities and counties would be getting millions of dollars in grant money to protect jobs at risk from budget cuts and fund 600 new positions -- these going specifically to veterans.

One veteran, James Bailey of Richmond, Va., said he was really glad to hear that; after six years in Air Force Security Forces, working law enforcement, nuclear security and as a dog handler for both the 4th Infantry and the 1st Cavalry Divisions, the former staff sergeant wanted to become a policeman.

Not anymore.

After failing to be hired by two local police departments, a county sheriff's department, the Virginia State Police and the Defense Department's security force, the 26-year-old Bailey has decided to focus on a degree in business and human resources.

"Right now I'm pretty focused on my education … I honestly don't think I would accept a law enforcement position right now," he said in a telephone interview.

These are tough times all around for veterans looking for work, and perhaps more so for those seeking employment in the public sector, including with law enforcement. According to the Justice Department's own figures, the 800 jobs set to be funded by grant money will make up for just about 3 percent of the nation's 30,000 unfilled law enforcement vacancies.

Though departments across the country are ready to hire veterans, local tax dollars used to fund the jobs have been drying up since the financial world imploded in 2008.

Until then, according to Justice Department figures, law enforcement jobs in America were growing by about 1,400 to 1,700 a year. And many departments then, like now, were big on hiring veterans -- if and when they could get them, according to Nelson Lim, an analyst with RAND Corp's Center for Quality Policing.

"Before the collapse of the economy the military was recruiting a lot, and at the same time police departments were struggling to find qualified candidates to fill their ranks," he said. And the people the departments most wanted were veterans.

"Even to be enlisted you have to score in the top 15 percent of … the aptitude test," Lim said. There was a brief period around 2005 when the Army lowered its standards, Lim said, but the service limited the number of the lower-scoring recruits it took in, so that the vast majority of veterans still would come from the higher-performing members of the force.

"So literally you had above-average people" who would be joining your department, he said.

As the economy slumped and cities, towns and counties began trimming their forces, however, there was a period when veterans -- by virtue of sometimes very generous state veterans' preference policies as well as experience -- were increasingly getting the available positions.

Yet at the same time, some police officials did become concerned that these preferences were making vets shoe-ins for jobs even if they weren't the best candidates. Some worried, too, that they might be bringing on to their force numbers of veterans with psychological problems.

In Boston, where veteran applicants are awarded 30 points on the police exam, the department went from hiring 43 veterans among the 269 hired through 2006 and 2007 to about 20 in a single 62-recruit class in 2008. The issue blew up publicly after Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis suggested that not every veteran is automatically a good fit for law enforcement.

Though Davis told the Boston Globe that veterans are often among the best performers in the police academy, he was concerned their skills may not transfer smoothly to the streets.

"We're not trying to take a hill,'' he told the paper. "We're trying to communicate with people.''

It wasn't just Boston, according to Jack McDevitt, dean of Northeastern University's School of Criminology.  McDevitt told the Globe that the same concerns were being discussed quietly among the nation's police chiefs at national conferences. They kept the talks quiet, he said, because the police officials didn't want to stigmatize vets or appear unpatriotic.

In an interview with Military.com, McDevitt said there was a time when most people assumed people with military experience would make the best cops.

"I think there's a more nuanced understanding today" of what make a good police officer, he said. "It's more the person … and not the background that makes them a good cop. Is someone who was in the military really going to be a better cop than someone who went to college? Maybe. The military is one factor but not the only factor."

Calls to the National Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Law Enforcement Recruiters Association were not returned.

At Rand's Center for Quality Policing, Lim says he has seen no evidence that departments are wary bringing veterans on.

"They actually prefer [them]," he said. "They actually go out after them." The Los Angeles Police Department has a special unit just for recruiting veterans, Lim said.

That's good news for the 220 cities and counties slated to divide up $111 million in grant money to fund 800 police jobs. The cities, among them Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Akron, Ohio, Tacoma -- and even Boston -- will be putting most of the bucks toward hiring veterans.

Under the grant from the Justice Department's Vet's-to-Cops program, 600 of the jobs are expressly for recent veterans.

"At a time of budget shortfalls, these grants will provide opportunities for much-needed, highly-trained professionals [veterans] -- with a proven commitment to service —to continue their careers in communities all across the country," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a June 25 statement.

The grant money and the likely handful of law enforcement openings the funds may continue or bring about in Virginia are too late for Bailey, however.

Though he has not ruled out a later bid to return to police work, it's just not in the cards right now. After starting out in criminology at Virginia Commonwealth University, Bailey is now majoring in business and human resources management.

"I'm probably trying to go in a different direction right now. I would want to finish up school before I did that," he said. Bailey does not know if a college degree will make a difference in the future -- the Air Force spent thousands of dollars training him already, even getting him K-9 certified.

"It will be one more thing to put on a resume, but whether it will put me over the edge to actually get accepted? I don't know. I can't imagine everybody they've hired [so far] had a degree."

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