To get a handle on the Philadelphia Police Department’s efforts to sign up new cops, just head to LA Fitness on Grant Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia, where the department holds frequent recruitment drives.

On Thursday, two days after the department’s most recent recruiting effort there, several members of the club were working out and willing to discuss their interactions with the cops.

Ravi Patel, 26, a physical therapist, said the department’s perks — including a nearly $55,000 starting salary — could not compete with his chosen career.

“When I was young, I wanted to be a police officer and I wanted to join the Army,” said Patel, a Temple University kinesiology graduate. “But once I went to college I knew what I wanted to do. And it was not being a police officer.”

Patel’s experience is not unique. When the newest recruits began their nine-month training program Jan. 13, Inspector Verdell Johnson, the commanding officer of training and education, took note of the 19-member class size.

“Small in numbers but we expect a huge impact in public safety!” Johnson wrote over a photo of the class that he posted on social media.

In fact, the group is about one-third the size of the Philadelphia Police Training Center’s last graduating class of 69 new officers in December, according to data provided to The Inquirer. The three previous graduating classes had 55, 83, and 88 new officers, respectively.

So why is the current class so small in comparison?

Staff Inspector Sekou Kinebrew, the department’s spokesperson, declined a request to interview Johnson, writing in an email: “There are numerous factors that could potentially contribute to the size of the most current class. So, any attempt to respond would be speculative.

Donald Singleton, 25, and Tareem Armstead, 26, in front of LA Fitness on Grant Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia, where the Police Department frequently holds recruitment drives. Both men have applied for jobs with the department but were not hired. Singleton had second thoughts about joining, while Armstead was rejected. They now work as armed guards for a private security firm.
Mensah M. Dean
Donald Singleton, 25, and Tareem Armstead, 26, in front of LA Fitness on Grant Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia, where the Police Department frequently holds recruitment drives. Both men have applied for jobs with the department but were not hired. Singleton had second thoughts about joining, while Armstead was rejected. They now work as armed guards for a private security firm.

“That stated, I can offer that our Recruitment Unit is comprised of dedicated officers, who employ a variety of techniques to recruit qualified persons to our ranks (including at college campuses, military installations, and community events).”

John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, said in a phone interview that he does not know why the class is so small. He said maybe the department should have waited to form a larger class, but added that he’s not concerned about it.

But some observers believe the class size is no small matter and deserves an explanation from department brass.

David Fisher, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Black Police Association, wonders why the class of 16 men and three women has no African Americans. He said that’s a slap in the face to incoming Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, the first African American woman to lead the Philadelphia department, and an indication that the department is not doing enough to attract a diverse workforce.

“I can’t put my finger on the reason for such a small class. I can ask what was the rush? Why no diversity? Why didn’t they wait until the new commissioner starts?” Fisher asked.

A nationwide trend

Philadelphia’s small recruit class may be part of a nationwide trend identified in a September report published by the Police Executive Research Forum.

The number of people applying for police jobs is on the decline, the report found, because a “robust economy and strong job growth are creating more options for people entering the labor market, so police agencies are facing more competition in hiring.”

In April, there were 7.4 million job openings in the country, compared with a little more than 2 million in July 2009, according to the report, which also cited negative news stories about police use of force as a possible factor in turning some young job seekers away from policing.

The report noted what it called “a triple threat” to police departments being able to maintain desired staffing levels: fewer applicants, more officers leaving before retirement age, and a growing number of officers becoming eligible for retirement.

Zach DeGovanni, 22, outside LA Fitness in Northeast Philadelphia, where the Police Department frequently holds recruiting drives. He has applied to the department and is waiting to learn his status.
Mensah M. Dean
Zach DeGovanni, 22, outside LA Fitness in Northeast Philadelphia, where the Police Department frequently holds recruiting drives. He has applied to the department and is waiting to learn his status.

The report’s findings were not news to members of LA Fitness on Grant Avenue.

“I approached them about four months ago because I wanted to know how the Police Department works, and the salary, but I never filled out the application,” said Paul Benny, 22, who graduated from Temple last month with a finance degree and now earns $64,000 as a financial analyst at Wells Fargo.

Donald Singleton, 25, an armed guard for a security company, said he started applying to the department about four years ago, but backed out due to negative news stories about police and his concern that he could not adhere to a so-called blue wall of silence to cover up wrongdoing.

Tareem Armstead, 26, an Army veteran and member of the Pennsylvania National Guard who works for the same security company as Singleton, said his Police Department application was rejected five years ago because he admitted to buying marijuana for his grandfather, who had cancer.

Armstead, an African American, said he believes his rejection may have had racist undertones, given that a white friend told him he was hired despite having told the department that he sold Percocet pain pills.

“I guess I was too honest, because I know a few white people who did way more than me and they got hired,” said Armstead.

In 2016, hoping to fill vacancies in the department, then-Commissioner Richard Ross scrapped a relatively new requirement that recruits had to have 60 college credit hours. But as of this month, the department had 166 vacancies, according to data provided to The Inquirer.

After his workout Thursday at LA Fitness, Zach DeGovanni, 22, said he applied to the department in April and is waiting to hear something.

Watching reality TV shows helped to convince him that policing is a good profession, he said.

“Not all cops are bad. Sure, some people make mistakes, we all do, we’re all human,” he said. “But it’s a fun job.”