By his own admission, Tom Bowser is getting "a little long in the tooth" to join the military. So the Springfield resident decided to try out for the Fairfax County Police Department instead.
"It's not necessarily because I always wanted to be a cop," he said. "I haven't always wanted to."
Bowser added that he was interested in joining the department's search and rescue unit. He was especially interested in the college credits he could receive through the Police Academy.
"That would cut a lot of time from my schoolwork," he said. Bowser is studying criminal justice at Northern Virginia Community College.
BOWSER IS ONE of approximately 78 people the Police Department hopes to put through the academy in March. Because of a federal grant, the academy also has room for up to 92 recruits at its August session.
To encourage people to become police officers, the department hosted a job fair on Sept. 28, which was attended by a few dozen people. Officers at the fair answered questions about careers as police officers, 911 Center call-takers or animal control officers, and handed out initial applications for interested citizens to fill out.
The Fairfax County Police Department is one of the best departments to work for, said Lou Marino, a recent Police Department recruit, who now works in the department's recruiting division. Marino also applied with the Capitol Police and the uniformed Secret Service.
“I did a lot of research on the Internet before I came out,” he said. “Once you do your homework, Fairfax County by far supercedes everything else.”
The equipment, the training and the opportunities to move into special units after two years on the job make the department a very attractive place, he added.
“I take calls every day from the Secret Service, from the Capitol Police, from agencies all over the place transferring into ours,” he said.
In the same way a star quarterback can see his entire career jeopardized by an early-season injury, Marino was worried that his police-officer days might be over when he “blew out” his shoulder barely two weeks into his time at the Fairfax County Police Academy last March.
But that was not the case.
“They took care of me all through my rehab,” said Marino, who moved to Vienna from Youngstown, Ohio, with his wife last December.
Marino, an eight-year Army sergeant and former sheriff’s deputy in Ohio, found himself working in the Police Department’s recruiting office while his shoulder healed. He will take another stab at the academy in March.
TO JOIN the academy, applicants first complete a series of tests and background checks, said Dwight Bower, director of testing and recruiting for the Fairfax County Police Department.
Twice a month at the Massey Building in downtown Fairfax, the police department offers a 100-question, multiple-choice test based on a study guide applicants receive 25 minutes before the test starts.
“Some of it is police terminology, police briefing material,” said Bower. “Some of it is short-term memory.”
After the test, applicants go through an interview where they answer questions about their work history, criminal record, driving history, drug use or military experience.
About two weeks later, the applicants learn about their test scores. If they pass, they undergo a physical ability test and medical and psychological screening. After that, a background examiner will scrutinize their pasts, talk to old employers, teachers, neighbors all over the country.
If nothing shows up during the background test, the applicant goes for a final interview before being offered a job.
“All of that can very easily take five months,” said Bower.
Sharon Butler, a detective who has been performing background checks on potential recruits for six years, said the applicant pool is very diverse.
“Some are local, some are out-of-state, some are military and some are straight out of college,” she said.
The application process can be tough. In 2001, the department tested just over 1,000 people for fewer than 100 spots in each academy session.
“MOST OF MY RELATIVES are policemen and firemen,” said Carol Kostka, who attended the fair to learn about the dispatcher position.
“I enjoy people, and I like to feel like I’m helping,” she said.
Kostka, a teacher at a junior college, added that she was not worried about getting burned out working at the 911 Center.
“It’s pretty challenging. I’ve been in that kind of situation,” she said. “Teaching is stressful, and I know about having to be on target.”
Robert Skinner, a Prince William County resident, who grew up in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County, also had many relatives in public safety. He recalled how his uncle would bring his uniform to Thanksgiving dinner and put it on halfway through the evening to go out on his shift.
“You make sacrifices to help out your fellow humans, and you sacrifice your family,” said Skinner, who used to be a single parent but has recently married another single parent, resulting in “a ‘Brady Bunch’ thing.”
His family, he added, “would support me if I were able to become a police officer. We would make arrangements.”
Skinner, who currently works for a private security firm, said he hoped that a bad knee on which he had surgery seven years ago would not prevent him from becoming an officer.
“I’m able to run normally and do the duty of a police officer,” he said. “You just hope that they would say, ‘Hey, let’s give this guy a shot. See if he can do it.’”