At the George R. Brown Convention Center, the lobby is crowded with nervous men and women, all waiting for the doors to open inside a huge assembly hall where rows and rows of tables and chairs are lined-up. This is where they'll take the city's Civil Service Exam, the first step toward becoming new police officers. Almost 800 registered to take the test, including Alex Perez, who drove 350 miles from Brownsville.
"I called the recruiting office and they told me that you had to sign-up a few weeks in advance and when they found out that I was from out of town they said just show up and then we'll go ahead and make an exception for the people form out of town."
HPD is counting on recruits like Perez to fix what has become a serious staffing problem. Since Police Chief Harold Hurtt was hired in March of 2004, the department has lost 660 classified officers, many because of retirement. With a current force of just over 4700 officers, HPD is about 700 officers short of where it needs to be. Lt. Ken Miller works in the department's recruiting unit and says it's gotten harder to find people who want to be police officers.
"When I was a little boy, everybody wanted to be a fireman, a policeman or a cowboy. You don't hear that anymore. There are good folks out there, we just have to find them."
And that could mean looking for them in places other than Houston. HPD has begun an aggressive nationwide advertising and recruiting campaign with slogans like "The Badge Starts Here", offering sizable sign-on bonuses for officers who join from other departments. The department is even looking for recruits in far off places like Puerto Rico.
"This is a learning thing for us. We're doing things differently because in the past there wasn't this difficulty and it's not just with us. This is a nationwide phenomenon. Go to the internet, do a search on police hiring and you can read the entire day of different departments having difficulty hiring officers."
Miller says only about 1 in 15 potential recruits eventually becomes a police officer, a number that could go as low as 1 in 20 this next year. Jerimiah Thompson is a senior at the University of Houston and is one of the hopefuls.
"I know countrywide it's pretty much a shortage. You hear that a lot in a lot of cities. Me being an education major, it's the same situation with teachers. It definitely attracted me because of job stability. You can go anywhere and pretty much are guaranteed a job, an open position."
Recruiters say a rookie police officer with a bachelor's degree can earn $47,000 with benefits their first year. The department hopes to have 5000 officers on its force by 2008.