By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
The wall: a six-foot stack of blue bricks.
The mission: go up and over it, the first hurdle in a 16-part obstacle course.
Me: suddenly, surprisingly nervous. The vertical lift has resurrected some anxiety from seventh-grade gym, where the prospect of flinging my pear-shaped, hormone-chemistry set through a public display of athleticism was hive-inducing.
At "go!," I run, then off my feet, beer-belly flopping against brick. Jell-O arms keep me hanging but quivering like a loogie hawked up and spat against the wall. But the encouraging screams of the 40 or so others at my back are as loud as a football sideline, voices balled up into a roar. I manage my left hock over the top, and the chorus behind me peaks when I pull over.
I did it. I'm gonna be a cop.
For the steady stream of hopefuls who turn up each week, qualifying tests here at the police academy, AKA Broward College's Institute of Public Safety, are the first baby steps toward a law enforcement career.
Round one is a physical test that separates scrubs from quality candidates. Which group will I fall into?
A number of local departments are topping off their ranks with fresh recruits. "There have been more vacancies," says Linda Wood, dean of the institute, which typically puts 12,000 to 15,000 people each year through qualifying tests. Starting salaries for officers are typically $45,000 to $54,000. "With budgets finally getting restored, some agencies are filling those vacancies," she explains.
"We have a very aggressive recruitment campaign going on," says Raelin Storey, public affairs director for the City of Hollywood, which has budgeted $40,000 for an I-95 billboard and other advertising. Miami is launching a recruitment campaign this month.
But hiring season raises possible problems. First and foremost, how was this office schlub not trash-heaped in the first go-round?
In the past, periods of heavy hiring have not gone well for Florida law enforcement. In the early '80s, the Miami Police Department was reeling from a crime spike following the Liberty City riots and the Mariel boatlift. The department responded with a two-year hiring binge that grew its ranks from 661 to 1,000. The quick bloat resulted in deficiencies in training and oversight, a fact that became pixel-clear when cops patrolling the Miami River were found to have been stealing cocaine from drug dealers and selling the product in Little Havana. A hundred officers were punished, fired, or arrested; more than 20 saw prison sentences.
Hollywood has also weathered a hiring scandal. An outside audit of the department conducted in the early '00s found that of the 59 officers hired between 1990 and 1995, 42 had trouble spots on their background, from psychological problems to criminal records. A New Times investigation discovered 30 of the problem cops were still on the force in 2005; by then, the officers were directly responsible for 11 lawsuits against the city.
So if past bumper crops have produced bad results, departments should tread all the more carefully when filling their current spots. As of presstime, the Fort Lauderdale Police Department has 15 openings. The Broward Sheriff's Office is looking for 12 deputies. Both Pembroke Pines and Coconut Creek are hiring. Hollywood has the most openings, 28. These openings are from natural attrition as well as an exodus of officers that followed pay and benefit cuts in 2010 and 2011.
Jeff Marano, the president of the Broward County Police Benevolent Association, says, "A lot of departments 30 years ago increased their number due to the crime rate with all the cocaine and marijuana that were hitting South Florida in the '80s." Now those cops are blowing out the candles at their retirement parties. "You have to start filling back up those positions."
By Florida Department of Law Enforcement standards, all new police hires — after background checks, interviews, and polygraph tests — go for 770 hours of training at the police academy.
But before would-be cops can get within spitting distance of an application, they have to knock off some required tests. Most departments include a basic education test, a 50-yard swim test, a basic motor skills test, and a written exam to gauge critical thinking for police work (sample question: Fill in the proper missing word: "The inmates ___ to use the telephone at least once a week depending on their custody status, provided that they follow all telephone regulations" — [a] allows, [b] allow, [c] are allowed, or [d] is allowed).
"The tasks that we ask people to do are things that normally come up in the life of a police officer," Wood explains. The hopefuls "come from being teachers, lawyers, paramedics, the military; some have worked retail. There's no pattern."
Motor skills tests are held Monday and Thursday mornings. Anyone can register online, but a doctor's note is needed to participate. At 8 a.m., I walk through the doors of the institute's glass and brick building on the Davie Road campus. After laying down $20, I'm directed back to a classroom to wait with everybody else.
What's the stereotype of an aspiring cop? Doughnut muncher? Gym-jacked bruiser? Gun freak crypto-fascist? All of the above? I take a seat among a lot of normal-looking dudes in T-shirts and gym shorts. At five-foot-ten, I'm taller than most except a half-dozen hulking colossi. The group — 30 men and four women — is a fit bunch, but only a few shirts are straining against the meat suit of a true juicer. A lot of tattoos peek from sleeves. Knees jiggle nervously under tables.