Does it seem that the rhetoric and criticism of law enforcement is getting worse with each passing day? Have you ever wondered what may happen if Law Enforcement decided to “walk off the job”? What would American society look like without law enforcement? These are all real questions that every citizen, every law enforcement administrator and every law enforcement officer should be asking themselves right now. We have critics that are quick to call into question the actions of a few and then generalize that all law enforcement is the same. We live in a society that is quick to judge and want to have all of the answers right now. We know that only about one half of one percent of all officers violate the oath that they swore to uphold. Regardless of the current narrative, agencies have done a good job in terminating those individuals from employment and in some cases charging them with criminal offenses.
Oftentimes the media wants to air a story “right now”, rather than waiting for an investigation to be completed. Demands from the media and from the public are that information must be released immediately and all information must be known immediately. The media offers a few seconds of video or a few preliminary facts and formulate an opinion of an event that may require months of investigation. The critics then take that brief bit of information and use it to paint a picture and narrative that they want to project to the public. The public then formulates an opinion based on these abbreviated bits of information. This has been evidenced in recent stories and examples, such as the Ferguson case and Baltimore case. As those two incidents have unfolded, we have seen that what some believed and promoted was simply not based on fact. Once the investigation was completed, the narrative and facts were quite different from what was originally reported and frankly distorted.
To be completely fair, in some instances law enforcement does not do ourselves any favors with the communities we serve. In many instances law enforcement “mirror” sentiment they feel from the media and other outspoken advocacy groups on the citizens they serve. This can be seen in the manner that they treat those citizens they make contact with on a daily basis. We stay vigilant, but that can be taken as or interpreted as being rude, uncaring or belligerent. Law enforcement knows that with any contact they make, the situation can turn deadly, and so the approach is to treat every contact the same. For those people we contact and treat the same as an offender who has a very lengthy criminal history, they feel that the contact was rude or less than professional. Law enforcement needs to do a better job at evaluating those contacts and in being more open, caring and helpful. We have been given the power of discretion and we need to do a better job of using that discretion. We need to be more mindful of our general interaction with the communities that we serve. Take the time to say hello, help someone in need, hold the door open for others, and engage the public in friendly conversation. I recently had a conversation with a co-worker who related that he had tried to engage some officers in conversation while visiting a couple of different cities in different States. He said that those officers knew he was in law enforcement and would not engage with him in conversation. He said that their demeanor towards him was less than friendly. If that is how he viewed those officers, being in law enforcement himself, imagine how citizens view that type of demeanor and contact. Sometimes we are our own worst enemy when it comes to our interaction with those we serve.
You may ask yourself how these events change how law enforcement is performed or what affect this has on society and law enforcement. It has driven a wedge between communities and law enforcement. In fact, these events and others like them have brought us to this point and time. In some communities divides are great, relations are raw and emotions are running high.
We have recently witnessed an all-out attack on law enforcement by individuals, groups, the media and even some governmental officials. In some cases not just verbally, but with violence against law enforcement. This has been manifested in the recent mass murders of law enforcement in Dallas and Baton Rouge. To date in 2016, 136 officers have died in the line of duty. 61 officers have died as a result of gunfire, 2 by assault, 1 stabbed, 12 by vehicular assault, 9 struck by vehicles, 4 in pursuits. These attacks are not just on law enforcement, but they are against the very fabric of a free society. Make no mistake about this, the only reason that people are free in this County is because of those men and women willing to go to work each day to protect those freedoms that society enjoys. Yes, the military defends your freedom from foreign enemies, but law enforcement is the reason that there is order and freedom at home.
As an administrator responsible for the operation of a Corrections Bureau, I know first hand how this assault on law enforcement has impacted my office. We are seeing it in attracting, hiring and retaining law enforcement and for that matter support staff. To give some examples, two years ago during an open recruitment we had 130+ people apply for and test for Corrections Specialist. During our last recruitment we had just over 50 apply and only 33 actually show up to test for Corrections Specialist. Our current recruitment has been open for 15 days and closes in 10 more days. Thus far we have received 15 applications for the open recruitment.
I recently addressed this issue with our County Commissioners and Personnel Office. The issue is real and it is having a very real impact. I have 158 sworn deputies in my current staffing plan. In 2008 we expanded our current jail facility. As part of that expansion, staffing plan positions were identified as needed to operate the facility. Currently 13 positions remain unfilled, not even added to the staffing plan. In addition to those staffing positions our agency is currently 12 positions short in our staffing plan.
As an agency we have recently terminated a few employees and we have seen people leave for private sector jobs, leave for patrol positions or retire. This has created challenges for our agency and for me as an administrator.
I think we can all agree that in today’s environment with scrutiny of law enforcement, we want the best working for us. We want someone who is professional, who is dedicated and who will embrace the values we expect of our employees. We do not want to lower our standards and end up with employees that will expose our agency to liability and discredit.
In addition to the challenges described above, I will share some additional difficulties we have been experiencing in recruiting, attracting, hiring and now retaining staff for Corrections. As mentioned with the recent recruitments, screening, testing, interviewing and hiring of Corrections Specialists, we have seen the number of applications decline drastically and the number of candidates testing decline dramatically. We have also seen a shift in the quality of the individuals who have applied and tested for these open positions. This past recruitment we had two candidates that admitted to recently seeking the services of prostitutes, one detained in another Country for prostitution, candidates from other Counties that had received severe discipline for misbehavior, one that engaged in criminal sexual activity as a juvenile and one candidate that was interviewed and admitted to being a prior and current drug addict. Are these the kind of individuals we want working for us? Is this really the best we can do in attracting potential employees?
Why are we experiencing this current problem? I think there are a number of reasons, but at the very forefront it is pay and benefits. A close second to pay and benefits is the current caustic, negative environment and perception of law enforcement. Litigation, criticism and scrutiny are higher than it has ever been in my career. Currently the unemployment rate in our State is 3.8% and private business is paying a higher wage than ever before to compete for employees. In Utah, our State Legislature amended the retirement compensation for employees hired after July 2010 and made it nearly impossible for retirees to enter back into the work force in a full time work capacity after they retire. These changes have significantly reduced the number of individuals eligible to be hired. There was a time prior to 2010 that many law enforcement officers would retire, have a short separation and then hire on with another agency. They were allowed to draw their State retirement pension and then work full time with another agency. They were not working on a second retirement, rather they were able to work full time for the wage and benefit package, minus a second contribution to Utah State Retirement, that the agency offered.
This is not a singular issue, but is a complex plural issue that is leading to many challenges for law enforcement and, if some issues are not addressed, to very serious, complex challenges in the future. Solutions are different for every agency, but I believe that most of these challenges are not unique to our agency. I recently spent some time with two Sheriff’s from other Counties. They both commented that they were not going to seek another term and one of them said, “I see a time when the only way we will be able to attract someone to work in law enforcement is to pay them $100.00 per hour.” I don’t know if he is correct in that statement, but I do know that attracting candidates, hiring candidates and retaining good staff is becoming extremely difficult. Frankly I see more issues and challenges ahead related to attracting qualified candidates and retaining our employees unless some significant changes are made. There is a very real consequence for taking no action at all. To do nothing will result in very real consequences for law enforcement, the communities and the citizens that those agencies serve. We all have a stake in this and we must adjust and act immediately to remedy the problems that we face.