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How the Phoenix Police Department is working to combat a systemic officer shortage

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Monday, March 18, 2024 - 11:59am
Updated: Monday, March 18, 2024 - 12:00pm

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Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
Phoenix Police Lt. Bryan Hanania in the KJZZ studio on Monday, March 18, 2024.

The Phoenix Police Department is finally making a dent in the ongoing officer shortage that has plagued the department for years now. And it’s not just a Phoenix problem. Law enforcement agencies across the country are facing hiring issues. The reasons are myriad: Experts will cite retirements, the pandemic, low unemployment, and divisive views of police from both sides of the political spectrum.

But, last year, for the first time since 2019, Phoenix PD hired more officers than it lost. Though, it’s not an immediate payoff. It takes about a year to train a new recruit to be out on the street.

It’s an incremental win, but one that the department says reflects renewed investment by the city in hiring and recruiting officers. They’ve hired new public information officers, redesigned the department’s website, and invested in a new marketing campaign directed at new recruits. You might have seen their ads around town. The tagline is “Rise to Serve.”

They’re in high schools and on college campuses in criminal justice classes. They’ve partnered with the Arizona Diamondbacks, the University of Arizona athletics, the Pat Tillman Foundation and more. And, they’ve changed their application process so they don’t eliminate so many recruits in the first round of hiring.

Phoenix police Lt. Bryan Hanania spoke about the changes with The Show.

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Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
Phoenix Police Lt. Bryan Hanania and The Show host Lauren Gilger in the KJZZ studio on Monday, March 18, 2024.

Full interview

BRYAN HANANIA: In the past, we had a written test, and it was just not reflective of somebody that would come into law enforcement and do a good job. So that was one of the things that my management and I, we got rid of it. We want to get people in the door and applicants in the door and use our background investigators and our psychologists and our online hiring platform to screen people rather than a standardized written test. That isn't really reflective of how good of a candidate somebody is. And once we did that, we averaged maybe 60 applicants a month that we were able to get to the door to well up over 200-sometimes, pushing 300 on some months out of the year just by getting rid of that. And our academy success rate actually has improved because of it.

LAUREN GILGER: And they're still having to pass the same rigorous exam to get out of the academy?

HANANIA: That is correct. There's a certification exam that Arizona POST has every police officer pass and we haven't lowered standards to get in the door. But that written test was just a hurdle for a lot of people in our community to get over, when they were a great applicant, but they might not have been good at that standardized test.

GILGER: You mentioned working with your psychologist to talk about getting recruits in. Talk more about that. That's really interesting. Like, what are you looking for in, in that sense, in a recruit?

HANANIA: Well, I'd say it's easier for me to say what we're looking for in a recruit. Independent thinker, critical decision maker, ability to work as a team. But we all know that at times in the night or when things go bump and nobody's around, you're going to be acting on your own, in the best interest of the community. And those are the attributes that we want in an applicant. And our psychologist, when they get to that part of the hiring phase, which is at the end, they sit down with our applicants and they make sure that they have those qualities and attributes and are going to be a great addition to the city of Phoenix.

GILGER: There was also a change in state law in 2022. The [Legislature] passed a law that would allow officers to defer retirement, right? Because a lot of people were getting to retirement age, you were losing a lot of officers that way, I understand. And it sounds like that's helped keep people in at the same time, you're trying to bring new people in at the, at the lower end.

HANANIA: That's correct. Yeah, the drop program has definitely kept our senior officers and that institutional knowledge on the agencies, not just with Phoenix, but across the state. But we still have to hire, we still have to get people in the beginning of the pipeline.

GILGER: So I want to back up for a minute or two and talk about some of the challenges that led to this, right? Like first thing that comes to mind for me is that becoming a police officer is difficult, but also it must be a difficult job. Like there's trauma involved in this kind of innately. What have you done on that front to try to make this a little more appealing, a little maybe less intimidating for folks?

HANANIA: Well, we have our employee assistance unit and it is 24-hour, seven day a week, support for the officers and their families.

GILGER: Like counseling support?

HANANIA: Counseling, support, peer support, everything you can imagine. And we recognize that as much as we like to preach, hey, leave your boots at the door, don't take work home with you. There are things that we see and we experience that innately in our mind and we have those support services to help officers and their families through.

GILGER: Have you seen that be a successful sort of talking point for new people coming in? Are they concerned about this?

HANANIA: They are, and it's a big question that they ask. And, and it's a great holistic approach to make sure that officers and the families have those mental tools in the toolbox to be resilient, to continue to make good decisions to keep themselves healthy so that they can have a long and healthy career. Because let's be honest, we all have bad days. You can't avoid them. And in police work, when you go from meeting one citizen to the next, they don't know what kind of day you're having, but they expect you to have the best day possible because you're there to help them. And our employee assistance unit really helps with that and continues it into the home support, because you wanna be supported when you go home. So you can again be mentally healthy and have a long-lasting career.

GILGER: What about the public conversation around policing right now, which has shifted so much. There's this polarized nature of the community right now of our country. A lot of criticism from the left about law enforcement and their tactics. Lots of attacks on federal law enforcement specifically from the far right at the same time. I wonder is it, is that a challenge, are you hearing concerns from people about just not wanting to wade into the middle of that?

HANANIA: Yeah. Occasionally we get that from some applicants that come up. But honestly, I could say 90% plus just want to know how they can help, how can they serve their community. And that's why I got involved in this. Yeah, I wanna help people, but I also want to put bad guys in jail. And that seems to be the overwhelming response and thought of the people that are coming up to talk to us about employment. And a lot of that, that you just talked about is noise. It's, it's that could be political talking points, that it could be the squeaky wheel. But the people that want to put on this badge and this uniform truly want to go out and help and serve our community and make it better.

GILGER: Is there concern about, you know, oversight, about the increase in body worn cameras, like the the kind of microscope that police officers maybe are under more now than they used to be?

HANANIA: Well, sure, that's always out there. But honestly, the body worn cameras I think is a blessing. It highlights the quality work that not only the Phoenix police officers are doing, but police officers across the country are doing. One of the things that I, I particularly enjoy doing is going into the classrooms. We were in a classroom at one of the local high schools here and we were talking about use of force. And I was able to use a body worn camera footage from the city of Phoenix on an officer-involved shooting and was able to talk about reaction time and perception. And what did you see? What did you expect the officers to see? What was reasonable in the situation? And we had a great conversation with those students because when I first showed them that video, the opinions of them were on one side of the spectrum.

But after we had the discussion and watched it and broke it down and talked about, like you said, tactics and perception and, and what is reasonable, and I'm not out there to necessarily change a student's opinion, but have them have an informed opinion, and the information on the other end of that and the conversations that we had were great.

GILGER: So there, there's less concern you think about the sort of the bad days, right? Like the times when things go wrong or that footage gets out and, and the officer is really under the gun?

HANANIA: Bad footage is gonna get out. Everybody, it's not just body-worn camera, everybody in the streets got a cellphone camera now. And one of our executive assistant chiefs who's a very good friend of mine, I love his theory on this: Treat every radio call, every police contact like your grandmother was watching you with that camera in hand. And if grandma's gonna be proud of how you handle that, then you've done well.

GILGER: I wonder one last thing on this front. What about increasing diversity in the force? I know there are efforts from the department and others to get more women into the force. Are also, you mentioned the Hispanic community, like are you also trying to get more people of color in? What's that look like?

HANANIA: I'm going to be not gonna be selective. I wanna hire anybody that is qualified for this job and wants to do this job. We have our 30 by 30 initiative. We do specific recruiting events with the Hispanic community, with the Native American community, with the Black community. But I don't go to those events specifically to recruit one socio-economic class or the other. I wanna talk to everybody, and if you're qualified to do this job and you want to do this job, I don't care where I meet you. It could be at the Rainbow Festival. It could be at First Friday on Roosevelt Street. It could be in a college or high school classroom. I wanna recruit you to work for the city of Phoenix because you have what it takes.

GILGER: Last question for you, lieutenant. If you're short 500 officers, I think it is right now, what does that mean for public safety?

HANANIA: Well, it's slower response times. The less officers that we have can potentially impact that quality of service, with wait times, with the amount of time an officer can spend on a call. And if you look across the country, you've got agencies talking about no longer wanting to respond to alarm calls or non-injury collisions or loud music. I can't say that those conversations haven't happened in the city of Phoenix, but I can tell you that our management does not want to stop those services. So we have to be able to continue to hire, keep new applicants coming in on the pipeline.

GILGER: Has it ever gotten to the point in, in the Phoenix Police Department yet, where you felt like you have to make those choices?

HANANIA: Me personally, I can't answer that. I, I go out on the street every day when I am blessed enough to work the street in my current assignment. I take every call that I can, I don't ever worry about, I gotta get to the next one, because the citizen that I'm working with at the time expects my all and I give it to them, and I know that every other member of my Phoenix police department does the same thing.

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