Interview with Deputy Chief James N. Owens
Deputy Chief James N. Owens, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department
"From the Field Experiences" Feature
Interview conducted in August, 2008
James Owens is the Deputy Chief of the Investigative Services Division of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. This includes all detective and investigative details outside of Vice Narcotics, Criminal Intelligence and Homeland Security. Chief Owens assumed this position on May 17, 2008. For the past year and a half he was the Deputy Chief on Human Resources, which includes Personnel as well as Training. The training portion consisted of Academy, In-Service training, EVOC (Emergency Vehicle Operations Center) and the Firearms Range. The Personnel portion included recruiting, all testing for new hires, transfers and promotions, and labor relations.
Please tell me a bit about the staffing levels of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
The LVMPD currently employs 2,417 police officers, 776 correctional officers, and 1,619 civilians. It's the 7th largest police department in the country.
What are your current staffing challenges?
During the past ten years Las Vegas experienced phenomenal population growth. The city averages almost 5,000 new residents a month. In 2003, then Sheriff Bill Young realized that the LVMPD would never be able to keep up and would continue to fall behind in its officer to citizen ratio. With no increase in funding, the officer shortage would eventually impact the ability to LVMPD to protect the city and the 36 million tourists who visit each year.
What did the Sheriff propose?
The Sheriff proposed an initial 1/4 percent sales tax increase (which was approved by the voters in 2004 and by the legislature in 2005) and a second 1/4 percent increase. The sales tax provided funding for 1200 new officers over a ten year period. To meet this goal and account for attrition, the LVMPD needed to recruit 300—400 officers per year.
Did the new funding for staffing change the way you recruit, train, and test officers?
Yes, the Personnel bureau staffing changed. There were more people to help recruit officers and move them through the hiring process. Officers are assigned full-time to the unit. We also engaged a local advertising company, R&R Partners, best known for the slogan "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas".
What did the firm who came up with "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" come up with for the police department?
They followed a process—conducting extensive surveys to determine what our target group is looking for in a job. They asked how recent hires learned of the LVMPD. After completing their research, the agency developed a profile of the motivation of recruits and helped us develop a plan to attract these individuals.
What did the profile reveal?
Potential officers were selfless, patriotic, and community-oriented. They crave a career with real impact. They desire structure, thrive within teams, perform well under pressure, and appreciate excellence through discipline. Posters, radio and television spots, and other materials were designed to attract someone with this profile. R&R Partners also discovered that the Internet is potential recruits' main source of information about the department.
How are you using the Internet to recruit applicants?
We made big changes. It became our mission to create a new website which would not only provide information to attract potential recruits but also allow recruits to submit applications on-line. The upgraded website accepts applications and plays videos. The videos offer insight into life in the police academy, which helps prepare candidates and reduce attrition.
What other recruitment tactics are you employing?
The LVMPD is hosting seminars, using Sheriff's Recruitment Councils, and utilizing a Commissioned Officer Referral Program. The seminars, which occur in the evening, prepare candidates for the orals boards, physical agility testing, and academy testing. The Sheriff's Recruitment Councils are made up of a diverse group of citizens from the community and assist the department in recruiting members of their community. There are Hispanic, African American, Women, Asian American, and Military Recruitment Councils. Finally, the Commissioned Officer Referral Program relies on another great source of recruits—current officers. The Department pays officers $500 for each recruit that makes it into the academy.
How many applications are you receiving? How many make it through the process?
In 2005 we handled 4,000 applications. In 2006 and 2007, we received over 8,000 applications. Instituting Internet applications means that we receive many more applications but there is more early attrition—more than half don't show up to take the initial test. Of those that take the written test, about one-quarter fail the first time. Another 10-15 percent fail the Oral Board and another 30 percent fail the Physical Agility test. Even after making it through this stage, there is still a high failure rate. Seventy-percent of these applicants fail the background investigation, which includes a polygraph, psychological evaluation, and medical evaluation.
Is there a way to increase the probability of success?
Yes, we are very pleased that we implemented a personal history questionnaire that predicts with good accuracy who will pass the background investigation. Eighty-five percent of those who pass this test will also pass the background check. This early screening saves considerable time, manpower, and money by eliminating those with less than a 15 percent chance of passing the background investigation earlier in the process.
Those that are hired, still have to make it through the academy, how is academy responding to the increased need for officers.
We made major changes. We initially had 4 academies per year and doubled 50-100 recruits in each class. We studied LA, and now we have 10 academies with 40-45 recruits in each class, and we can add or subtract recruits at will. Our recycle program means they don't have to start over. The failure rate is still 20 percent but we're looking at it.
Did you have to increase staffing to have 10 academies per year?
Yes, from 18 to 33 full time officers plus an additional sergeant. Almost all of the teaching is done by full time assigned officers. This is a big change.
How are you able to retain officers?
No lateral transfers. This helps. Don't take for granted trying to create a good place to stay.
What is the starting salary for recruits?
Starting pay for a police or corrections recruit is $49,000. After 18 months and a scheduled merit pay increase officers can be making $56,000. A topped out Patrol Officer can easily make over $80,000 per year.
Is there an educational incentive?
The department pays for all employees to further their education. Currently the department reimburses employees for tuition expenses if they pass the class with a grade of C or better. Officers who have an Associates Degree receive an additional $375 per years, Bachelors Degree, $750/year and Masters Degree, $900 per year. We also have a language incentive. Officers who speak Spanish receive an additional $750 per year.
What other aspects of the department help attract and retain officers.
The department has relatively new building and vehicles. This is important to officer morale. We also have a strong relationship with the community—so officers are respected on the streets. Officers also have a voice in the department. The Sheriff hosts regular "Shop Talk" forums where officers can discuss areas of concern. All of these things together make the job more enjoyable.