Police departments face staffing issues, uncertain futures

Posted 10/14/20

Across Chatham County, understaffed police departments face waning candidate pools as public discontentment with the police discourages potential interest in law enforcement careers.

In Siler …

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Police departments face staffing issues, uncertain futures

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Across Chatham County, understaffed police departments face waning candidate pools as public discontentment with the police discourages potential interest in law enforcement careers.

In Siler City, Chief Mike Wagner has several vacant positions including an officer, sergeant and detective. Between the nationwide anti-police fervor, the relatively low pay in law enforcement and the job’s high risk, he is not surprised that few applications come across his desk.

“Would you do this job for $38,000 when you can get shot?” he said. “I don’t think so.”

Police work has always come with a measure of danger, but in recent months – especially since the wrongful death of George Floyd by a police officer in May – police have come under fire, both figurative and, sometimes, literal.

“We’re at a point where people need a reason,” Wagner said, “and it must be the police’s fault because we’re expected to fix everything. So, it’s a unique dynamic. And I think no one person is to blame. I think that we all have a shared responsibility in our current trends.”

So far, Wagner’s officers have not experienced much kickback as part of the movement for police reform. Across the county in Pittsboro, however, Town Manager Chris Kennedy worries about potential violence every night.

“There have been a lot of unfortunate incidents with the police, and some of them at the fault of the police,” Kennedy said. “Pittsboro has been fortunate that we haven’t had to deal with that, but it’s every single day that you have to worry about it… I don’t go to sleep wondering if we’re going to mess up someone’s zoning on a letter tomorrow, you know? But I very much think about, ‘are we going to end up having to use force tonight with a police officer?’ And it might be justified. But either way, even if it is justified, it’s a highly polarizing event. It’s highly politicized. And it’s just hard to have really good officers who want to keep doing that.”

Like Siler City, Pittsboro has an understaffed police department. It has been without a chief since March when Chief Percy Crutchfield retired. It may still be some time before the position is filled, but Kennedy — who is responsible for selecting the next chief — thinks the long vacancy has more to do with shifting responsibilities in the town than with recent protests against the police. Kennedy only took over as town manager in July, and, he says, it would have been atypical for the interim manager to fill a position as important as police chief.

“I think our vacancy at the chief position is not a result of the nationwide unrest that we’re seeing with regards to ‘defund the police’ and all these other initiatives,” he said.

But Kennedy agrees that a shifting social perception of police officers will make the task more difficult, and may have long-term ramifications.

“I would agree that it’s hard to recruit and retain good talent at the police level,” he said. “You’re starting to see police officers in other areas that say, ‘man, I can make more money working for my father-in-law’s landscaping company, and I know I’m not going to end up on WRAL tonight.’ And that’s hard to overcome.

“What we’re seeing in the police realm is not officers going from Pittsboro to Apex, or Apex to Cary. What we’re seeing is people just getting out of the business altogether. They’re saying, ‘this isn’t worth it.’”

It is not just police officers who are looking for opportunities away from law enforcement, though. The problem extends also to would-be police officers — young people deciding on their career paths.

“In recent years, we have seen a statewide shift in both the number and caliber of applicants interested in Basic Law Enforcement Training,” said Chatham County Sheriff Mike Roberson. “There are still many capable, intelligent and compassionate individuals entering the field, but in fewer numbers than before.”

Central Carolina Community College, based in Pittsboro, boasts one of the most competitive Basic Law Enforcement Training programs in N.C. But enrollment numbers are plummeting, and recent protests are to blame.

“I believe that enrollment is down due to the current events in our nation,” said Neil Ambrose, director of CCCC’s BLET program. “As we all know, this is a challenging time in our state and in our nation. Those challenges certainly contribute in difficulty to recruit and retain law enforcement officers.”

The program has had 98 graduates since 2016, about two-thirds of total enrollees. Now, there are just 32 students between four different classes.

“The current classes have less than half of what they’ve been at in the past,” Wagner said. “And so, for chiefs like me, combating for a few individuals, it’s very difficult.”

For those who are still pursuing a career in law enforcement, CCCC has adjusted the program to prepare cadets for the unfolding rigors of life in police work.

“We discuss current events and talk about ways to make things better as new officers, and ways to do things differently in various situations,” Ambrose said. “I believe our students are more in touch with current events and it actually makes them want to do their best for the outcome of making a difference. Our students are taught discipline, respect, honor, and devotion. When they graduate from our program, I feel they are proud to have received vigorous training to prepare them for what they may face in their communities.”

The program is still evolving to meet the demands of modern police work, but it has “already implemented Tactical Communications De-escalation Training,” Ambrose said. “Professional development for these new trainings was provided by a special allocation in June 2020 from the State Board of Community Colleges.”

Current police officers need much of the same modified training if they are to adapt to changing public opinion, Kennedy says.

“We can work with our officers and give them the things that they need to succeed,” he said, “the very best training that we can. We really want to make sure we’re innovating, that we’re staying current with all of our stuff and we’re not just saying, ‘Hey, it won’t happen to us, we’re too small.’ If we do that, then something will happen.”

Despite the prospect of better training and added incentives, however, it may be too late to keep some officers from moving on. Much of the police force has already given up.

“It’s tough, and it’s going to get harder,” Kennedy said. “We’re going to see a tipping point where you’ve got career police officers who have dedicated their working lives to this, they’re close to retirement, and they’re just going to walk away.”

Wagner is more optimistic. He acknowledges the gravity of the challenge before him, but he is confident that eventually his department will find a solution.

“We’re at a crossroads of ideas, of expectations,” he said, “and it’s going to take us some time to formulate the right equation for success.”

Kennedy is not sure what success will mean, but one thing is certain: police departments must change to survive. Like Wagner, Kennedy will keep working to encourage police officers and attract new ones — but it may not be enough.

“Twenty years from now, are there going to be people who still want to be police officers?” Kennedy said. “I don’t know.”

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