Bartholomew County law enforcement is facing challenges retaining and recruiting officers due to a confluence of factors including ‘national and local law enforcement rhetoric’ following multiple high-profile police killings in recent years.
Earlier this week, the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department and the Columbus Police Department had a collective of 18 vacancies, or about 8% of their combined workforce. And that’s even with the CPD, which hired four officers earlier this month.
Local officials said the high number of vacancies reflects a national trend as law enforcement agencies across the country face increased retirements and resignations, as well as stress and the burnout during the pandemic and the national death toll involving police.
A survey of around 200 police departments found that retirements increased by 45% and resignations by 18% between April 2020 and April 2021, compared to the previous year, according to the Police Executive Research Forum , an independent political organization based in Washington, D.C.
At the same time, public attitudes towards policing have changed, according to recent polls. Last year, up to half of American adults thought police violence against the public was a “very” or “extremely” serious problem, according to a poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
“Law enforcement across the country has been hit hard in recent years,” Bartholomew County Chief Deputy Maj. Chris Lane said. “Part of this is due to incidents caused by other law enforcement officers across the country doing things they shouldn’t have done.”
As of Wednesday, the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department had 14 openings, including nine openings for correctional officers, Lane said. Seven other officers were absent due to injuries, medical issues or still in training at the state law enforcement academy.
Even if the sheriff’s office fills all openings today, it would be mid-April before they work in the field on their own, as the law enforcement academy lasts about 16 weeks and the training on the land can last three to four months.
“So you’re looking at, in essence, about eight months,” Lane said. “Even if I have the position filled, there will be eight months of essential training before this person is released on their own – and that is if everything goes according to plan.”
And the sheriff’s department has already had to move employees — including clerical and custodial staff — to help prepare meals for inmates at Bartholomew County Jail due to a shortage of kitchen staff.
As of Thursday morning, there were 254 inmates at the prison, each receiving three meals a day. This represents a total of 762 meals that staff must prepare and distribute each day.
“We can’t say, ‘Well, we’re not serving dinner tonight,'” Lane said. “It’s not an option. We must. We cannot lock the doors of the building. We can’t go out and say, ‘Hey, we’re not taking any more detainees.’ It does not work. Our doors are always open and we only have to move people to fill in certain areas.
“If we keep going down the road and we have less and less staff, if I have to move people around, do I have to take a deputy off the street to come back and help in the jail?” Lan added. “Should I take a deputy off the street to go help at the courthouse so that guy or girl from the courthouse can come here and help out in jail?
But local law enforcement isn’t the only one struggling to retain and recruit officers.
Last year, law enforcement across the country reported experiencing a wave of retirements and departures and struggled to recruit the next generation of police officers in the year since George Floyd was killed by an officer, according to the Associated Press.
Floyd was killed in May 2020 by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck while Floyd was handcuffed behind his back, according to news reports.
The killing sparked nationwide protests amid a nationwide toll of police brutality and racism. Chauvin was convicted of murder and sentenced to 22½ years in prison.
It is also dangerous work for officers. Less than a month ago, a police officer was killed in Elwood, Indiana, when a man got out of his car during a traffic stop and opened fire, according to news reports.
However, law enforcement was already having difficulty attracting and retaining officers before Floyd’s killing, according to a 2019 survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
“The difficulty in recruiting law enforcement officers and employees is not due to any particular cause,” the International Association of Chiefs of Police said in a report outlining the results of the survey. “Rather, multiple social, political and economic forces are all at play simultaneously to shape the current state of recruitment and retention. They are both systemic in nature and reflect individual-level considerations, making solutions to the problem particularly difficult.
Small pool of candidates
At the same time, fewer people are applying to become police officers – and local officials say they are lucky if those who apply actually show up for their interviews.
The CPD has seen a dramatic decline in the number of applicants for patrol officer positions over the past two decades, said department spokesman Lt. Matt Harris.
In the early 2000s, it was fairly common to have more than 300 applicants vying for five or six CPD vacancies, Harris said. During the most recent hiring process, CPD received approximately 30 applications for eight positions.
“And obviously when we go through the next stages of the testing process, whether it’s the written test, the physical test, the background test, those numbers go down quickly,” Harris said, adding that the department doesn’t. wouldn’t lower his standards. just to fill vacancies.
The CPD had four openings for patrol officers as of Thursday, although just weeks ago the department had eight vacancies, officials said.
The Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department has been holding interviews with corrections officers for more than a month, though only “a very small number (of applicants) show up,” Lane said.
Last Monday, for example, the sheriff’s department had nine interviews scheduled for corrections officers, but only two people showed up.
Harris said the CPD began to notice more people wondering if they wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement after the 2014 murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, along with others. “highly publicized controversies in law enforcement”.
In the past, the CPD had seen people from other professions — including engineers and teachers — change careers to become law enforcement officers, Harris said. However, this is no longer as common as before.
“You just don’t see that as much now,” Harris said. “It’s either someone gets out of the military and applies, or they go to college and major in criminal justice.”
Both departments say they have taken steps in recent years to try to convince recruits to join their ranks and motivate people to stay.
The CPD has begun allowing officers who live in Bartholomew County or a nearby county to have take-out vehicles. Additionally, the department has increased salaries and now allows officers to have facial hair and visible tattoos except on the face, hands and neck.
The sheriff’s department is asking for a 5% salary increase for next year, Lane said, adding that the department is “doing everything possible to do everything possible” to attract quality applicants.
The starting salary for a CPD officer is around $55,600 to $66,725 this year, while the base salary for Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Deputies is just over $56,400 and that salaries for correctional officers are just under $43,130.
“It’s extremely difficult (to recruit),” Harris said. “But we have to do our due diligence to make sure we put the right people in the patrol cars here in Columbus and not just hire someone who thinks ‘I want to be an officer’.”