James Bishop was inspired to become a Salt Lake City policeman through work as an IT specialist.
After a stint working as a tech for a law enforcement agency, the 33-year-old decided he could do more good on the street than programming systems in an office.
So Bishop did what other men and women his age and younger are doing less often than their counterparts of 20 years ago: He enrolled in the Salt Lake City Police Academy for 21 weeks of training that would teach him the skills he’ll put to use as a rookie cop.
Bishop was one of 23 men and women who graduated from the Salt Lake City Police Academy on Wednesday during a show of pomp and circumstance where newly anointed officers reflected on the coursework they had completed covering the physical, intellectual and ethical demands of police work. For many, the opportunity to be a cop offers a meaningful career that allows them to give back to the community, Bishop said.
“I think it’s a good career. You learn how blessed you are to not have problems,” Bishop said. “And you get to help people who do.”
But as the Salt Lake City Police Department welcomes its newest recruits, Chief Chris Burbank acknowledges young talent like Bishop is harder to come by than when he started his career.
About 20 years ago, more than 1,500 applications would pour in for coveted academy spots, Burbank said. Now, the department receives only a 100 to 200 applications for the same 30 or so academy positions.
As a result, the police department is spending more time recruiting at colleges and making a pitch to military veterans about the rewards of a career in policing.The decline in number of police recruits has been noticed by researchers at The University of Utah’s Center for Policy and Public Administration, which this month unveiled a report on the benefits young officers could bring to Utah’s aging police force.
The report “What Generation Y Brings To Law Enforcement and How Police Agencies Can Benefit,” authored by West Jordan Police Department Sgt. Drew Sanders and Angie Stefaniak, a program manager at the center, estimates that Utah will need to add 800 officers to its police force by 2016 to keep up with population growth and the retirement of existing officers.
That number is a 20.6 percent increase in the number of officers employed in Utah. According to the Utah Department of Workforce Services Occupational Projections Report for Police and Sheriffs Patrol Officers, there are 3,870 police officers currently employed in the state.
With more officers from the Baby Boomer generation retiring after completing 20 years of service, researchers point to Generation Y — those born in 1979 or later — as a resource to fill the gap. The problem, however, is that young professionals often see police work as a temporary job and opt out for better-paying or other lines of work after a few years, Burbank said.
Many also have a false impression of the public service aspect of police work. Young candidates may be uniformed about the career possibilities within the department and instead rely on inaccurate portrayals of policing, Burbank said.
“They think what they see on TV is what policing really is,” he said.
Sanders and Stefaniak cite the trend Burbank is experiencing to similar findings across the United States. There is evidence Generation Y across the country “may not view law enforcement as a lifelong career,” they wrote in the report.
While Burbank has seen evidence of that, Wednesday’s graduation is proof that plenty of young candidates are driven to work in law enforcement. He said the department will continue to be proactive in educating the public — especially younger members — about the realities of policing and the career potential the profession holds.
Officer Aaron Johnson, valedictorian of the 126th academy class, said the job will always be appealing to those who want to make a difference.
“I like to make wrongs, rights,” Johnson said after Wednesday’s ceremony. “I think it’s a noble profession.”