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Desperate for officers, a Georgia police chief hits the road

Why We Wrote This

A recruiting crisis has the potential to help reshape policing as we know it. Policy is one thing. But the character and caliber of the people getting into the profession will likely be the chief catalysts for change. First in a three-part series.

Ann Hermes/Staff/File
Corpus Christi Police Officer Skyler Barker (l.) and his partner, Officer Mike Munoz, work the night shift on May 20, 2017, in Corpus Christi, Texas. Mr. Barker, a Marine Corps veteran, was named the Corpus Christi Police Department 'Officer of the Year' in 2016.

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US policing is facing two existential questions: Who will police America? And how? Whether in Atlanta or Los Angeles, brass are shuffling schedules, burning overtime, and watching response times rise as the numbers of qualified recruits have slowed to a trickle. That has left hundreds of openings at some big city departments. More than 80 percent of US police departments are operating below budgeted “authorized force.” While trying to fill 10 open officer positions this spring, Floyd County (Ga.) Police Chief Mark Wallace had 12 decent prospects. Two showed up for the test. One bombed – badly. The remaining candidate ultimately didn't take the job. Multiply that scenario by 17,985 police departments nationwide and you have a sense of the recruitment challenge facing America’s police chiefs. “It’s scary: I see a time when nobody wants to do this work,” says Mr. Wallace, a 38-year veteran. But the dogged former homicide detective says he won’t quit looking for the next generation of Rome’s protectors. That’s why he folded his frame into his cruiser and headed south to Fort Benning in a long-shot bid to personally recruit retiring infantry planning their civilian lives.

Before he became chief of the Floyd County Police Department last December, Mark Wallace investigated a murder where a man killed his elderly neighbors “just to get himself out of hock.”

Recently, a 911 call from the other side of the spectrum reached Chief Wallace’s dispatcher: a mom requesting an officer to talk to her 7-year-old, who refused to go to school.

Decent pay, sometimes quirky but always critical work, and keys to a take-home cruiser are among the perks to being a Floyd County Police Department officer – 53 deputized men and women patrolling 500 square miles of Appalachian highlands.

Cons include dropping $85 on a new pair of trousers every few months to replace those torn by briars. “The woods are where the bad guys tend to hide,” says Wallace, a 38-year-veteran.

It is all part of the excitement here on the cusp of Mayberry and “CSI.”

Like thousands of small-town and big-city police chiefs across the US, Wallace says his biggest challenge isn’t busting counterfeiters or conducting manhunts – at least not of the traditional sort.

While trying to fill 10 open officer positions, Wallace had 12 decent prospects. Two showed up for the test. One bombed – badly. The remaining candidate ultimately didn’t take the job. Multiply that scenario by 17,985 police departments nationwide, and you have a sense of the recruitment challenge facing America’s police chiefs.

“It feels like a ‘Book of Eli’-type situation,” says Wallace, referencing the apocalyptic neo-Western. “It’s scary: I see a time when nobody wants to do this work.”

But the dogged former homicide detective says he won’t quit looking for the next generation of Rome’s protectors.

That’s why Wallace folded his frame into his cruiser and headed south to Fort Benning in a long-shot bid to personally recruit retiring infantry planning their civilian lives.

The expedition, he says, gave him cautious hope – that solutions to a policing crisis may ultimately be rooted in the very people who are now considering the calling. These are a “new breed” of officers that "follow new rules," as one potential recruit, an Army Ranger, puts it at the job fair.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Floyd County Police Chief Mark Wallace, show in his office in Rome, Ga., says his biggest challenge is finding the the next generation of officers to protect Rome and the 500 square miles of Appalachian highlands his 53 officers patrol.

Who will police America?

US policing is facing two existential questions: Who will police America? And how?

Whether in Atlanta or Los Angeles, Reno, Nev., or Rome, brass are shuffling schedules, burning overtime, and watching response times rise as the numbers of qualified recruits has slowed to a trickle. That has left hundreds of openings at some big city departments. More than 80 percent of US police departments are operating below budgeted “authorized force.”

Consider a confluence of forces: a wave of retirements from the last big recruiting push 20 years ago, a tight labor market that offers less dangerous opportunities at higher pay, and a social media environment where officers say they whipsaw between being portrayed as heroes and villains.

Millennials especially are steering away from lifetime careers like policing, opting instead for shorter experiences. Consequently, the US also has a shortage of truckers, commercial fishermen, and garbage collectors, all of which are more dangerous professions per capita than being a police officer.

Yet policing is in a particular pickle. Social media and the burgeoning use of body cameras has exposed the profession to unprecedented transparency – while also helping police departments defend against false accusations.

Ultimately, negative images of police have not impacted the positive view many Americans have of their own corner cop, according to Gallup, which last year noted a 19-point year-over-year jump in support for police by 18-to-34-year-olds. Yet Pew found last year that scandals have changed how people view the institution itself, with six out of 10 saying that cases of black people killed by police officers are evidence of a broader problem.

Those realities are forcing a rethink of benefit structures and standards, including whether tattoos and prior drug use should be automatic disqualifiers. The process also is turning a sharper eye on what a police officer ultimately represents in American society.

“The role of police has changed fundamentally in very recent years,” says Sarah Charman, a University of Portsmouth sociologist who conducted a five-year study of police recruits in Great Britain. “We are asking police officers to be something and portray something and symbolize something that doesn’t exist in the reality of their role. They are supposed to be heroic crime fighters yet they get heavily involved in social work, safeguarding, and mental health services.”

Through Freedom of Information Act requests to six city departments in Texas and Oklahoma, the Monitor obtained recruitment numbers from the past five years. The numbers offer a snapshot, not only in the total number of recruits, but, more telling, the percentage of those recruits accepted into the academy. (See graphic.) Nationwide, less than 10 percent of applicants go on to become officers. As the years go by, the gap can result in hundreds of officers missing from the streets of cities. For example, in Houston, Police Chief Art Acevedo estimated he needed at least 1,500 more officers.

SOURCE: Austin Police Department, Corpus Christi Police Department, Dallas Police Department, Houston Police Department, San Antonio Police Department, Oklahoma City Police Department
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Jacob Turcotte and Henry Gass/Staff

Changing standards

Take Portland, Maine, a colonial brick port city on the rim of Casco Bay that boasts “quality of life that is off the charts,” says Police Chief Michael Sauschuk.

That New England idyll alone, he says, used to make it easy to recruit new officers.

Today, however, a 116-member department is at its lowest staffing levels ever.

With the national picture just as dire, Mr. Sauschuk joined a nascent movement among America’s law enforcement leaders: As of this year, an applicant who used to smoke pot can now work as a police officer. “At this point, [past drug use] is not the end of the world,” as long as applicants are honest about it, says Sauschuk. “The moral and ethical aspects of the process are far more important than if someone smoked a joint four years ago.”

Sauschuk says he has seen a shift in policing across his own career arc.

“I was hired in 1997, and let there be no mistake, we thought we were doing the right thing by trying to arrest ourselves out of problems,” he says in a phone interview. “But the truth is, you can’t. The vast majority of the time, we are dealing with people who are having a tough day at 3 o’clock in the morning. The career is in the service realm. You’re helping people day to day, trying to put people on the long-term road to health and wellness.”

He says such policing has created a virtuous circle in Portland, building goodwill that, in turn, make the streets more peaceful and the job less dangerous. He also hopes it makes the idea of being a cop more attractive to nontraditional hires.

“I’ve got people in black and white cruisers on the street who are attorneys that passed the bar – and we’re lucky to have them – but we also have blue-collar guys, former mechanics, that have won Officer of the Year,” says Sauschuk. “People will respect you for the work you do. I’m proud to see the profession evolve.”

‘He is the reason I'm still interested in being a cop’

In Rome, where parts of the Reese Witherspoon comedy “Sweet Home Alabama” were filmed, human resource director Daryl Bowie has noted a lingering sense that becoming a cop might not be worth the hassle.

“I think [coverage of disgraced police officers on social media] has had an impact” on attitudes among recruits, says Mr. Bowie. 

That backdrop is a big reason why Wallace for the first time took recruiting on the road, and why he aimed for a place where he “gets to shake hands with heroes”: Fort Benning, the heart of the US infantry as well as the Armor School. The storied installation sprawls across 182,000 acres of the Georgia “gnat belt.”

“We’re trying to find qualified candidates, good character, and we’re looking for diversity,” says Wallace. “The Army has all that.”

He is far from alone in his thoughts, however. Set up inside a strip-mall, the fair bustles with employers and troops in camouflage. There are tattooed and goateed combat veterans, still young but eyes wizened beyond their years. “I’m tired of carrying a gun for work,” says one multiple combat veteran when asked if he’d consider policing as a job.

The hours slide by. Then, a bell rings and a whoop goes up. Floyd County is the first to hit the event’s hiring board: a 19-year-old named Jessica. But Wallace watches as she is steered not toward the Police Department but the even-more-shorthanded Sheriff's Department.

At the fair, recruiters like Richard DeMarco from Orange County in Florida, whose 1,500 sheriff’s department force is 200 bodies short, crane their neck as Miguel Sanchez makes his way through the crowd.

A military careerist who spent part of his time in the military space program, Mr. Sanchez is an expert on battlefield surveillance. He says he can see settling his young family into a small town like Rome.

But ultimately he shakes his head. “Unfortunately, what I’m seeing is a catastrophic loss of rapport” between police and their communities – the kind, he knows from personal experience, that can be ruinous for soldiers in a war zone, and disastrous for cops on the homefront.

Such grim feedback is one reason why chiefs like Wallace are starting to consider diversity as integral to the profession’s survival – a chance to widen the recruit pool and infuse the profession with new thinking. Women, for example, make up about 12 percent of the US police force (up from 2 percent in 1970).

“It is a new type of police culture: a different style, attuned with the public, which shows more compassion and integrity,” says Dr. Charman, the sociologist.

Soldier Alexandria Disqus chats amiably with Wallace about Rome, how nice it is, starting pay. An officer-in-training at the fort, she’s at the fair doing low-key security. But his pitch caught her ear.

Before joining the Army, Ms. Disqus spent six months as a police cadet in Buffalo, N.Y. She saw all types of officers, some of whom left her disillusioned. But a key memory is of the officer who got off at 3 p.m. and promptly drove down to the local rec center to play basketball with the young men who lived in the low-income communities he patrolled.

“He was amazing, and he is the reason I’m still interested in being a cop,” she says. After talking to Wallace, she said she’d give Rome a look – one day.

Rethinking the profession

A few days later, Wallace smiles at the prospect of his daughter’s coming graduation from the University of Georgia. But when asked about the road trip, he sighs. “I’m not sure it was worth the time,” he says.

Recruiters say privately that they are praying for an economic downturn or a decline in military spending, both of which would boost the cop pipeline. But the future of policing – and who will do the job – also will depend on new framing of the role of police. That work has largely not yet been done, policing expert David Kennedy has said.

“For police, the hardest thing is to reconceptualize the profession,” says Nelson Lim, a recruiting expert at the RAND Corp. “Do we celebrate the people who chase the bad guy, kick the door down, and shoot? Or do we celebrate the people who can help eliminate the need for those tactics altogether?”

Wallace’s department faced that choice this spring.

When two of his officers disarmed an angry man without a shot fired, it made laudatory headlines. They became the cops who didn’t shoot.

Wallace acknowledges an internal struggle: whether to applaud the duo publicly and send a broader message on use-of-force shifts in society – or quietly put a letter of commendation in their file for their bravery and cool-headedness.

“When your job is to preserve the safety, security, and — crucially — liberty of a community, each individual encounter is conducted against the backdrop of those broader, overarching goals,” he says. The shifting dynamics between job safety and community values “has definitely started to enter the recruiting equation.”

Staff writer Henry Gass contributed to this report from San Antonio.

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