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Best for Vets: Law Enforcement 2015

December 8, 2014 (Photo Credit: Prince George’s County Police Department)

When Ruth Recio returned from her fifth Army Reserve deployment, she was a "broken soldier."

A fellow soldier had died in her arms. She had post-traumatic stress. And she didn't view returning to her job with the Harris County Sheriff's Office in Texas as any relief.

"After being here for 10 years, I felt as though I was leaving one hostile environment and going into another," she said.

She planned to resign, but when a fellow officer heard about her plight, he offered a sympathetic ear, helped her through that difficult period and worked to create a new division within the department for officers like her. Now Recio is the military liaison officer for the sheriff's office, and she helps provide similar support for veteran and reservist officers — and works to make sure it doesn't get as bad for her fellow vets.

The List: Law Enforcement 2015

Methodology: How we compiled our rankings

She and the department organize military-related community events, create care packages for deployed reservists and their families, and run a 24-hour telephone hotline for vets in need. That hotline number: Recio's cell phone.

"We've basically tried to keep the battlefield and the homefront together," she said. "Just keeping them engaged has been a whole lot better than disconnecting."

Thanks in part to such outreach efforts, the Harris County Sheriff's Office ended up as one of the top agencies in the 2015 edition of Best for Vets: Law Enforcement. The Orange County Sheriff's Office in Florida and the Prince George's County Police Department in Maryland were among the other top finishers.

We evaluated departments and agencies across the nation, with a survey of more than 90 questions that delved into their military and veteran recruiting efforts, veteran and reservist policies, and departmental culture.

The responses show a significant focus on service members and veterans within law enforcement but also room for improvement. And all but a handful of respondents to our survey said they are hiring now.

About half have some sort of veterans hiring preference, either through extra points automatically added to entry exams or other procedures. About three in four attend military-specific job fairs, and they averaged eight per department in 2013.

Many have employees who spend a large part of their time recruiting or supporting veteran officers, and about four in 10 train their agency's employees about military culture, career paths or related issues.

More than 92 percent have current or former service members, or military spouses, in senior leadership roles.

On the other hand, only about 15 percent of departments have a military-specific resource or support group.

And while better than two-thirds of departments will count military service toward retirement programs, vets typically have to buy in to do so.

Still, neither vets nor cops are in it for the money, said Steve Saunders, a sergeant in charge of recruiting for the Cincinnati Police Department.

"I think it comes down to people wanting to do more for their community," Saunders said. "You're not going to get rich by being a police officer."

Veronica Suarez, a Navy reservist training to be an officer with the Orange County Sheriff's Office, said that such a desire to give back to her community led her both into military service and police work.

And she noted something that others within law enforcement said: Many of the skills and practices service members learn in the armed forces are important within law enforcement.

"My experience from the military actually helped out a lot," she said.

Even with the similarities, going from Mosul to Maryland is a big transition. To help with that process, the Prince George's County Police Department reaches out to veterans while they are training in the police academy, said Todd Miceli, the department's military programs manager. The department is also developing new efforts to help returning reservists get used to the very different rules of engagement.

"It's not training. It's more of an acclimation, just so you can sort of ease back into it," Miceli said.

Mary Ann Salazar, recruiting and background manager for the Orange County Sheriff's Office, said her agency covets veteran officers for their discipline and familiarity with the chain of command and other features that the military and paramilitary agencies have in common.

But that doesn't mean they can hire you on the spot. Agencies have to follow exacting procedures to take on new officers. So if you want to do police work, you need to start your transition process several months prior to separating.

"Don't wait until you're getting out, like a month before or two weeks before," Salazar said. "To be a law enforcement officer, we've got to do some significant background processing on you. It takes some time."

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