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.
South Florida Police Departments Now Hiring
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, the dean of the institute, which typically puts 12,000 to 15,000 people each year through qualifying tests. Starting salaries for officers are typically between $45,000 and $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, the public affairs director for the City of Hollywood, which has budgeted $40,000 for an I-95 billboard and other advertising. The City of 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.
Soon, a small woman with short blond hair barks orders about which papers we need to sign. "If you guys are going to be police officers," she says, "you're going to have to be able to figure this out."
A beefy lieutenant with a bullhorn voice is up next, flexing a little stand-up.
"How many of you had the Denny's Grand Slam this morning?" he shouts. "Just don't puke on me. I'm tired of being puked on."
"Yes, sir," blurts a crewcutted man, who then goes silent, as if notching his brownie points on a mental scorecard.
Now everyone screams, "Yes, sir!" after every order issued from the top man.
Our first two skills tests will be the trigger pull and long jump. Each of us must pick up an unloaded revolver, point it at a white dry-erase board, and let our fingers rip — 18 untimed trigger pulls with the dominant hand, 12 times with the other. Next, from a standing position, we have to jump forward at least the distance of our own height.
Sounds easy, but I start getting nervous. My gun-slinging experience is limited to playing Area 51 at a Pizza Hut circa 1996. However, this test is asking for the finger stamina that puts lawyers' kids through the Ivy League. How hard is it to pull a trigger? What if my index finger cramps? Do fingers cramp?
Also, I'm a liar. I just lied to you. I'm actually five-foot-nine — have been since eighth grade. Nonetheless, to the DMV, doctors, and women, I say five-foot-ten. That's what I wrote on my form here. Now I'm sweating that counterfeit inch something fierce, worried I won't be able to hop farther than my "height," thus embarrassing my ass in front of all these well-intentioned future keepers of the peace.
I step in for the trigger pull. Right hand, left hand — easy. Jumping five feet ten inches? No problem. Everyone passes.
Emboldened, I'm out the door. Out on the institute's track, one by one, we push a police car in neutral 20 feet. Next is the half-mile run, a group sprint in five minutes or less. Everyone knocks both off.
During a ten-minute cooldown, a small group begins to cluster around a short, stocky guy with his eyes shielded behind the tinted limo glass of Oakley sunglasses. In a quiet voice, he slowly drops insider knowledge. Which departments are easy to get into ("Pembroke Pines"), which are tough ("Fort Lauderdale, dude... BSO you want to stay away from"). No way to know if Oakley's info is bullshit or not, but more testers creep in to eavesdrop, as anxious about landing an opening as high school seniors dishing over college admissions.
The crown jewel of the agility test is the obstacle course. Think Double Dare minus pads and slime. We each have two minutes to make it through the gauntlet. First up, it's the six-foot wall. I watch my fellow testers struggle up one by one until it's time for my performance-anxiety-racked try.
After I haul that leg up and over, I speed down a seven-foot ramp back to the ground. Next, a fixed railing is easily cleared, followed by a chainlink fence any former skateboarder can take. I squeeze past a large window frame, swing open a heavy door, and close it behind me. Another three-foot rail is next, followed by a zigzagging maze. I bash my knees on the ground to scramble through an eight-foot-long concrete tunnel.
Then: shit. Monkey bars.
Eighteen feet of them. With these toothpick arms of mine, no way. Can't do it. I hang for a second, then drop. Shame.
High-stepping over a horizontal rope ladder is next. Damn, it's suddenly getting hot out here, isn't it? Finally, I balance one foot before the other on a narrow, 40-foot-long log. Are my ribs aching? I lock my arms on some parallel bars, wiggle a few inches, then down. "Come on, come on!" someone screams. Ribs definitely hurting. Next, a sprint around a 36-foot mini-track, and — finally — done.
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I pass, regardless of the monkey-bars fail (everyone is allowed to fail one of the obstacles yet still pass the test). Final time: 1 minute 30 seconds. Well under the two-minute mark needed to pass. Wood didn't have data on the pass/fail rate, saying that if people fail, they often return repeatedly to try again.
Easy as this first round is, I'm still leagues away from handing over my application. Let's face it — there are better-toned candidates with stronger trigger fingers and less gut fat.
At least I hope so, for our collective safety.
"Remember," Wood says. "Out of every 50 people who apply, only one person likely [is hired]."