The field of law enforcement is in flux in America.
Amid a nationwide movement calling for sweeping law enforcement reform, changing legislation and outcries by some activists to defund the police, law enforcement agencies nationwide are seeing a mass exodus of veteran police officers and struggling to recruit new officers to fill the ranks.
In Halifax County, law enforcement agencies are working harder than ever to recruit new officers and fill open positions.
Despite the uncertainty in the future of law enforcement, local police chiefs expressed their confidence in their departments’ abilities to continue serving their communities in a changing world.
“Law enforcement is still one of the most noble professions around,” said South Boston police chief Bryan Young. “The policing profession is changing, almost daily, and the departments and local governments that have the ability to adapt will find ways to recruit talented individuals to their ranks. However, this is just not a police department issue. As local governments find ways to bring jobs and invest in our community and schools, this will also draw new people to our communities and help us compete with other entities for new police recruits.”
The South Boston Police Department currently has 26 officers, including two new hires in the Police Academy. The department currently has four openings. Today, the department typically receives 10% of the applications it received 20 years ago for each open position — a 90% reduction in applications.
The police department is doing several things to help recruit new officers: offering higher starting pay, paying for all of the officers’ equipment, offering a $5,000 sign on bonus for certified officers and an education incentive. The department also has a take home car policy. As of April 1, the starting salary for South Boston police officers increased from $35,000 to $40,000 annually.
Recruitment has become harder for the Halifax County Sheriff’s Office in recent years, as well, according to Halifax County Sheriff Fred S. Clark. The sheriff’s office currently has 32 full time sworn officers and seven part-time employees. That includes patrol, investigations, courtroom security, civil process and administration. The sheriff’s office currently has three open positions.
“Unfortunately, the applicants have declined in the past years,” Clark said. “This has been a trend throughout the state, on both state and local levels. I have spoken with other sheriffs, chiefs and jail administrators in many jurisdictions that are facing the same challenges.”
One of the obstacles that Clark said the sheriff’s office has faced is disparity in pay with other surrounding agencies.
“Some deputies have left the sheriff’s office going to other agencies or other careers for higher pay,” Clark explained. “Our board of supervisors has worked diligently to get much needed salary increases for our staff. This helps us to compete with other agencies and we greatly appreciate them working with us…our starting salary is $34,000 but we are working to try to get more competitive with other agencies.”
The pay gap is something Halifax police chief Stuart Comer also cited as an obstacle to recruiting new officers. Halifax Police Department’s annual starting salary for officers is $32,000. As an incentive, the police department does have a take home car policy for officers living within 20 air miles of the Halifax town limits.
Comer pointed out there are many law enforcement agencies within a 50-mile radius of Halifax making competition for certified officers to fill positions fierce already. In today’s world with law enforcement officers leaving the profession in record numbers, competition to recruit officers for open positions has gotten even harder.
“I’m sure that any law enforcement agency you call would say we have open vacancies,” Comer asserted.
The Halifax Police Department currently is fully staffed, with five full-time members: chief Comer, a sergeant and three officers, plus three part-time officers. The officers cover a four-and-a-half-square mile radius that is home to about 1,300 residents and answer approximately 450 calls for service per month, according to Comer. While the Halifax Police Department is fully staffed today, Comer said when the department dropped down to three officers a few years ago, recruiting officers to fill two of those open positions proved to be a difficult task.
Recent Virginia legislation pertaining to traffic stops is another potential obstacle in the retaining and recruitment of law officers.
As of March 1, minor infractions such as defective equipment, loud exhaust, tinted windows and smelling marijuana can no longer be the primary reason for a traffic stop.
Expired inspection and registration stickers can still warrant a traffic stop; however, they must be expired for at least four months.
Chief Young said while it is too early to know what impact the new legislation will have on recruitment of law enforcement officers, the police department does have concerns about the legislation related to “traffic safety, the impact it may have on criminal activity involving the use of vehicles, and the ability to address local concerns like noise, trespassing and loitering.”
Chief Comer said while he does not foresee the legislation having an impact on recruitment, he does see it potentially being difficult for veteran law enforcement officers who have been trained to look for things like recently expired inspection stickers and now have to “turn a blind eye” to those things.
Veteran officers retiring earlier than they had in the past and/or leaving the ranks to pursue other professions is something the local police chiefs have noticed in recent years, as well.
In Young’s view, veteran officers who have not suffered any bodily harm in their law enforcement careers are making the decision to no longer put themselves in harm’s way every day and to leave law enforcement to the younger, new recruits.
Unfortunately, those new recruits are not as numerous as they once were, as fewer young people are showing an interest to pursue a career in law enforcement.
Sheriff Clark said he feels sure that one of those reasons is because in some places, people’s perception toward law enforcement has changed. However, he said he believes the sheriff’s office still has a “good working relationship with the citizens that we serve and protect,” and will work to maintain that positive relationship with the community.
“We will continue our community policing and other programs that interact with the community which is an asset to our administration,” Clark said. “Hopefully soon everyone will get back to having more events throughout the county which we always appreciate being a part of. We are in the process of offering more programs to better serve the citizens.”
Chief Comer also said he feels the Halifax Police Department has a positive relationship with the community.
“I get thanked daily for the job that I do. That makes it all worth it,” Comer said. He added he and his officers constantly have their meals paid for by anonymous patrons at local restaurants and even have haircuts paid for them by customers at the local barbershop.
As a police chief in a town as small as Halifax, he knows many community members by name. Comer believes those daily interactions, along with his open door policy at the police department, keeps the department’s relationship with the community strong.
“I have had an open door policy ever since I became chief,” Comer said.
He believes the key to any police department’s success moving forward, and what he strives to do, is to be “transparent and open-minded and try to have a closer relationship with the community that we serve.”
Chief Young also spoke of the positive relationship between the South Boston Police Department and the community it serves.
“This community is highly supportive of the police department and the officers here. It’s one of the things that drew me back here,” Young said.
He moved back to South Boston and took on the role of police chief in January, following longtime town police chief Jim Binner’s retirement.
The positive relationship between the South Boston police officers and community members goes both ways, says Young, and one of the main reasons for that is most of the officers live in the community they serve and are active members of the community beyond their role as law enforcement officers.
“It gives confidence to the community that these officers are just people like you and me,” Young explains. “It humanizes the man or woman in that uniform.”
Continuing its community policing activities, maintaining a high standard of professionalism and being transparent are the things that Young said the police department would strive to do to successfully serve the South Boston community in today’s world.