WHAT’S THE STORY: Independence police has altered some recruiting efforts to fill a large number of vacancies in the department.

WHY IT MATTERS: Understaffed agencies is a nationwide issue, and in Independence it has led to overtime and some delays with internal staff movement.

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The Independence Police Department is grappling with an issue that can be found in law enforcement agencies across the nation – staff shortages.

Of the department's 203 budgeted sworn officer positions, there are 11 vacancies, with four pending retirements either by the end of this year or midway through 2018.

“It's actually a national issue that we're falling prey to right now,” Major Keith Leap said in a recent presentation to the City Council. “It's always a fluid process for us.

“We're trying to get ahead and trying to find qualified applicants that are out there, see what vacancies are out there and try to get up to speed.”

To combat the shortage, the department made some alterations to its recruiting – empowering more officers to spread the good word and making the department more visible around the metro area and state. Those efforts produced an applicant pool from which IPD has extended conditional offers to 14 certified officers, hopefully alleviating the problem soon.

Among Independence's suburban neighbors, Blue Springs and Lee's Summit police say they are in good shape. Blue Springs has a handful of openings among 100 sworn officer positions but just as many recruits in the police academy, spokesperson Jennifer Dachenhausen said, and Sgt. Chris Depue in Lee's Summit said his department's seven vacancies among 147 positions are “pretty normal.”

However, some of their possible new hires – as well as some in Independence and Kansas City – have come from the Raytown department, which recently cut 17 officer positions because of a giant budget crunch.

Raytown notwithstanding, from just about any corner of the country, one can find a law enforcement agency with the room – and need – to hire a few more men or women.

“Departments are struggling to find not only interested, but interested and qualified, candidates to join the force,” Jim Burch, vice president of the Police Foundation, said in a posting earlier this year on lawofficer.com. “With everything happening around policing from salary to criticism, the question many people are asking is, 'Is it worth it?'”

Independence Chief of Police Brad Halsey said the shift work necessary to law enforcement might have a growing lack of appeal, and departments have had to fight some negative perceptions caused by national media narratives the past several years.

“There's way more good stories than the bad ones,” Halsey said.

A police staff shortage often has a ripple effect, particularly if the shortage is severe and lasts long enough. First, Halsey says, it leads to some overtime to properly cover all patrol shifts.

“Our No. 1 priority is patrol and answering the calls for service,” Halsey said. “Patrol and detective units, we've got to keep those staffed.”

As a result, some officers are delayed from moving into a specialized unit because their positions can't be backfilled, which can affect morale, Halsey acknowledged.

“We have two spots in accident investigations that have been open for a number of years,” he said.

Several IPD hires come from neighboring agencies, and part of the department's recruiting has simply been to arm officers with enough information – such as a strong benefits package, variety of units to work in and a good relationship between management and union – if they think of former colleagues who might be a good fit. Officers with four years experience elsewhere can make a lateral move to Independence.

Halsey emphasizes that IPD won't actively look to poach from other agencies, though it does meet with an agency about a certified officer applicant for background check purposes.

“We understand, when they lose that officer, they have to fill that spot,” he said. “We all work together, and it's a pretty sensitive thing.”

Taking that same information, as well as a starting pay of $44,000 that rates slightly higher than other nearby agencies, IPD also has a team of six officers who attend job fairs, career academies and police academies with non-affiliated students – “free agents,” as Leap called them. The department also has a fully outfitted patrol car designated for recruiting officers to take on-site.

“We're giving them the ability to go out and speak, and I think they appreciate that,” Halsey said.

As they try to engage high schoolers – something IPD is doing more with local districts, Halsey said – the trick is maintaining that engagement until the qualifying age of 21.

“It's not just what we can do today, but down the road,” he said.

The minimum hiring age of 21 hasn't changed, but Leap said IPD has relaxed a couple of qualifiers. The five-year mandate after a marijuana infraction is down to three years – more in line with other agencies – Leap said. For other illegal drugs that had been automatic disqualifiers, IPD now has a 10-year mandate since that offense, provided the applicant also had a strong job performance. The written test for already certified law enforcement officers has been eliminated.

The physical fitness test hasn't changed, though, and prior-agency contacts still are part of the background checks, which now are handled by additional investigators over years past. In fact, one check disqualified a candidate.

“We're looking for the right people; we're not just hiring to fill a hole,” Halsey said.

The recruiting efforts netted some promising early returns from the latest online application. From 59 certified-officer applications, 29 made IPD's eligibility list and about half received offers. In addition, 66 non-certified applications are being reviewed, with testing next month. Any candidates who make the final cut from them would still have to go through a police academy, but they could provide some backup possibilities.

“We're hoping this certified list is the answer to our issues, but we want to keep all of these efforts going,” Leap said. “This is the worst we've ever been on manpower shortages, but this is the best we've been on an applicant pool, as well.”