In May, 22-year-old Elijah Heston became the latest officer to join the Longview Police Department. And as the department looks for ways to hire and retain young officers, he’s in many ways a poster boy for the effort.
“He’s a really good young man,” Chief Jim Duscha said. “You get to know them through the years that they’re here as a volunteer. … We could tell that he wanted to work for Longview. I can’t wait to get him out on the road by himself.”
Heston grew up in Longview and knew he wanted to work in a public service job since he was a child. After graduating from the Lower Columbia College running start program at 18, he joined the Longview police cadet program. At 21 he began the process for becoming a full officer.
“You know, I grew up here,” Heston said in a recent interview. “This is basically where I call home. I flew down to see family in Texas and talk to law enforcement down there, but it didn’t feel the same. It didn’t feel like home. I feel comfortable here. I like this place.”
While the department is fully staffed according to the city budget, new officers like Heston are needed, Duscha said.
A 2009 report by the Police Executive Research Forum recommended the department needs 64 officers, but it now has only 60, including three still attending or waiting to attend the police academy, Duscha said. It also found the department should “over-hire” in anticipation of future vacancies.
Cops have a tendency to move around, Duscha said, and the department hires about four or five officers a year to keep up with transfers, retirements and other vacancies. They typically lose an officer every year or so to Vancouver, but Duscha said that officers are realizing “that the grass isn’t always greener” away from Longview.
Longview is where Heston’s heart lies. Since starting May 16, his has set goals of working on the street crimes unit and becoming a K9 unit handler. And he’s looking forward to finishing his officer training with the department and taking off the “training wheels.” He’ll be making about $6,000 monthly once he’s completed his training.
“Nationally, every community has this, but there is a big drug problem,” Heston said. “For me, if I can make any kind of a difference, that’s my goal. I want to try to make it a more positive community and get rid of as many drugs as I can.”
Duscha said Longview PD currently has a “huge” group of officers with less than three years of experience, like Heston. The chief said he’s hoping the agency can hold onto many of those officers for several more years, because those who stay five or six years are more likely to start families and settle in the area long-term.
Retention is all made even more important, Duscha said, because the city is considering annexing more residential areas west of the city. It’s important for the department to add a couple of officers a year to keep pace with the city’s growth.
The police department already has the biggest budget of all city agencies, but it would need even more to expand the staff and meet the recommendations of the 2009 consultant’s report.
“It’s money,” Duscha said. “Every department in the city wants more money. There’s a lot of other departments — I get that completely — but for safety and security reasons we need enough cops on the road to do the job right. ”
The department’s cadet program is one way they’re trying to hire officers who will stay in the area.
“They get to experience what it’s like, but they don’t do the job,” Duscha said. “They’re not commissioned or armed. It’s eyes-on, not hands-on, experience.”
Junior or senior high school students can take a police science class at Kelso High School, but Longview PD requires new officer hires to be at least 21 and have a college degree. Duscha said the department started the cadet program in 2013 in part to bridge that gap.
Cadets do some office work as well as working at community events like safety fairs, parades, and festivals. As a cadet, Heston said he’d often “fill in the gaps” wherever he could.
“I feel like it helped me a ton,” Heston said. “I’m definitely more comfortable talking on the (police) radio, (and) it gave me a better understanding of the layout of Longview and different issues in the community.”