Police poaching: Retaining trained officers proves a challenge

December 2009 Posted in Community

By Brenna WiegandFormer Silverton Police Officer Eric Druliner, his wife, Molly, and their son, Caden, at his swearing-in ceremony with the Lake Oswego Police Department last May.

One of the most troubling forms of theft Silverton Police Chief Rick Lewis says he has to contend with is from his department’s ranks. Officers, after about a year’s worth of paid training time, are stolen away by the big city departments and the lure of more excitement.

“The cop shows on TV don’t do us any favors,” Lewis said. “The work looks exciting, challenging and fun – different things happening every day – but when it doesn’t rise to their expectations they think they’ll find it someplace else.”

Compounding the small-town challenge of having trained officers “poached” by larger agencies is the overall tendency of law enforcement officers to move more than those in other fields, Lewis added, especially with so many different opportunities within drivable distance. In addition, Lewis notes that today’s officers are a different breed than those of 30 or 40 years ago.

“Back then it was career first and family second,” he said. “There was a lot of divorce. Today it’s a whole different ball game – and it’s to their credit – but when they realize how demanding the profession can be on a family or have the chance to earn more, they have a tendency to move elsewhere – or even go into a whole new career.”

Despite the benefits of working in a smaller city, time and again Lewis has felt the pinch of not being able to offer the pay, benefits and opportunities such as promotion or specialization it takes to hire and retain officers. Several years back, the city negotiated a non-binding contract with the Silverton Police Officers’ Association requiring that officers new to the field make a 30-month commitment or reimburse the city for a portion of their training. However, cities aggressively recruiting officers have been known to make it worth their while by offering bonuses or extra vacation or sick time.

“It’s common for bigger agencies to go out and recruit from smaller ones, formally or informally,” Lewis said. “It’s a major issue at National Chiefs of Police Association meetings.”

But for one young policeman, more was involved in his choice to relocate than higher pay and more action. Eric Druliner, a 2001 Silverton High School graduate, lives in Silverton with his wife and young son. After two and a half years on the Silverton force, he took a job in Lake Oswego.

While growing up, Druliner experienced “a few positive police contacts,” which led to police work making the No. 3 spot on his list of potential careers. As he made his way through college, Druliner eliminated engineering and then teaching. The psychology degree he was earning “fit hand in hand with police work” so he became a reserve officer with the Silverton Police Department to see what it was like. His experience in that volunteer capacity cemented his choice.

“I enjoyed it a lot and had a lot of fun,” he said. “Why wouldn’t I want to be a cop?”

While in his final year in Western Oregon University’s psychology program, a position opened in the Silverton department. Druliner successfully made it through the lengthy application process that includes academic, physical, lifestyle and psychological testing. He was hired in September 2006 and paid through a few months of field training and a 16-week intensive training program at the Oregon Police Academy.

Once a full-time officer, Druliner found the work “a lot more intense than I thought.”

“You’re taking calls and writing a lot of reports,” he said. “What kept me in it were the many avenues of police work you can branch into besides just being on patrol: working with canines; interagency task forces; detective and mental health work.”

However, where the young officer saw potential for implementing some of these programs in Silverton – in some cases doing much of the legwork, including finding civilian sponsors – Druliner said he found the department either unable or uninterested in putting them in motion. He was also disappointed by what he considered a lack of reality-based training in crucial skills such as use of force, defensive tactics, case law and emergency vehicle operation, which he says increases the risk of mistakes – and liability – in an already risky occupation.

Silverton was among the many law enforcement agencies called in to assist with the Dec. 12, 2008, bombing in Woodburn that killed two officers and left another in critical condition. At that time Druliner met a lieutenant from the Lake Oswego Police Department who encouraged him to apply.

“I wasn’t really looking and it was a very tough decision,” he said. “I was comfortable in Silverton and had a 30-second commute.”

Now with the Lake Oswego department for eight months, Druliner does not regret his decision.

“I believe in the short time I have been with Lake Oswego I have become a much better, safer and confident police officer,” he said.

“Yes, the pay is higher and the benefits a little better, but ultimately it was about the expanded training and greater opportunities for specializing; one of my goals is being a canine officer. I’m also interested in detective work, crisis intervention and assisting in mental-health cases. I had to do what was best for me and my family.”

“It’s a continuing challenge to come up with incentives for officers to stay with smaller agencies,” Lewis said.

Sometimes officers from larger agencies decide to move to a smaller town where there is less excitement and less worried nights for the family, said Lewis, adding that a small town often gives an officer more time to get to know its citizens, talk to them and give them advice.

“We have been very fortunate in the quality of our police officers but we realize the need to offer greater opportunities as we seek out ways of hiring and retaining people,” Lewis said.

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