The toughest beat 

Who wants to be a police officer?

A print of two officers surrounded by youngsters hangs in the Missoula Police Department office. The officers lean down toward the children, smiling and attentive. One rests his cheek against a blond girl’s head. The print, with the logo “Mister officer…?” depicts one vision of the relationship between police officers and the community they serve. These officers do not belong in the dark, slow-motion video of the 1991 Rodney King beatings. These officers would not torture a prisoner with a broken broomstick handle, as a New York policeman did in 1997. These officers would not be charged with rape, as Missoula County Sheriff’s Deputy Steve Nelson was earlier this year.

Nationally, images of police beatings and pepper spray riots have contributed to declining interest in the profession and have had a “tremendous impact” on the profession’s appeal, says Elaine Deck of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). Locally, Missoula’s Chief of Police Bob Weaver agrees. Some people respond to the images, he believes, with the following reaction: “‘I don’t want to be associated with that type of profession.’”

Roughly a decade ago, the Missoula Police Department (MPD) screened between 100 and 120 applicants a year. Today it sees just 60 a year. “In the next five years, you’re going to have about a 50 percent turnover in your senior staff,” predicts Weaver, and so demand for new law enforcement personnel is high. Graduates of the Montana Law Enforcement Academy (MLEA) can “pretty much pick where they want to go,” says MLEA program manager Dale Aschim. Locally, the police force is growing, but the department is working harder to find qualified hires from a shrinking pool of applicants. Fewer and fewer people want to be cops.

Three decades ago, things were different. Former Chief of Police Pete Lawrenson retired in 2000 after nearly 25 years on the force. In the mid-1970s, “there was a high degree of respect for law enforcement,” says Lawrenson, now security and safety chief for Montana Rail Link. A shoplifter or speedy driver, stopped by an officer, would straighten up a little when an officer approached, he says: “‘That’s a police officer; I better yessir it…and not back-talk.’”

These days, the uniform elicits less respect and more contempt.

Officer Nicole Pifari joined MPD about six months ago.

“It’s a trip to put on this uniform for the first time,” she says. “Guys that have been doing it for a long time are probably more immune to the looks and stares and kind of feeling that you get when you’re out and about. But for me, I’m still sensitive to what [I’m] picking up from people.” Until last week, Pifari, a regular at a local bakery and coffee shop, would not show up there in uniform.

“There are people who look at you and you get the feeling that they hate you because you’re a police officer,” she says.

At the Montana Law Enforcement Academy, Aschim says that a good deal of the curriculum focuses on maintaining good relationships with the public. The academy tries to instill the “protect and serve” mentality in students, he says.

But violence against officers has undoubtedly contributed to declining interest in the profession, too. MPD Sgt. Bob Heinle was shot and paralyzed in Missoula in 1998. Soon after the shooting, Weaver remembers a promising candidate asking why he would want to put himself in that situation.

For the past seven years, IACP national survey data have shown that recruitment is among smaller police departments’ top three concerns, Deck says. MPD stepped up its recruiting roughly three years ago, Chief Weaver says, touting Missoula’s quality of life.

“You have hunting, fishing, skiing, you have all these blue ribbon streams…you have the arts here in Missoula,” Weaver explains.

So far, he says, MPD has been able to lure “excellent applicants.” But with 15 of 96 officers currently eligible for retirement, he expects “another big turnover here soon.”

As the city and the police force grow, Weaver says, he hopes to preserve the small-town culture of Missoula’s police, that close relationship between the police and the schools portrayed in the “Mister officer…?” print.

But there is another local image of police, too. The Hells Angels riots of 2000 undoubtedly contributed to local perceptions of law enforcement, and the riots remain a sensitive issue between the Independent and the department. An Independent photo essay showing officers on the offensive won a prestigious national journalism award but left the police feeling that they had been treated unfairly. Generally, Deck says, media reports contribute to poor images of law enforcement. Media, she says, typically report only “sensational things.”

With such potential for violence and a tainted image, who wants to be a police officer anymore?

Military veterans, accustomed to the structure and discipline, are still attracted to the job, Weaver says. And Pifari. Why? “The short answer is that I’m not much of a desk job kind of person.”

She graduated from the University of Montana in 2003 with degrees in international business and Spanish. Formerly, she says, her experience with law enforcement had been “like other people you know, trying to beg my way out of speeding tickets.”

But she wanted variety, and she wanted “a stab at making a difference.”

Despite the poor images of law enforcement she believes are fixed in some minds, she says, “We don’t want to be the big, bad uglies.”

But she can’t forget that she may encounter people who see her as such: “Part of my job every day is to put on this bullet-proof vest.”

kszpaller@missoulanews.com

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