Negative media coverage, other factors reducing numbers of applicants to law enforcement careers
Working as a law enforcement officer is not a job – it’s a calling.
Those are the words of Mitch Slaymaker, a former Brownwood police sergeant who now works as the deputy executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association (TMPA). The TMPA, founded in 1950, protects the rights and interests of Texas law enforcement officers.
“It is a code within our DNA,” Slaymaker said via email.
In Texas, fewer people are answering that call for a number of reasons, including negative media reports that are misrepresentations of police-involved incidents, Slaymaker said.
In Brown County, Early Police Chief David Mercer, Brown County Sheriff Vance Hill and Brownwood Police Chief Terry Nichols see a reduction in the number of applicants and agreed that negative media coverage has been among the factors.
Many are turned away from the profession after watching officers who were trying to protect their communities end up being “crucified by media, some DA’s and overzealous special interest groups,” Slaymaker said.
The TMPA acknowledges there have been “bad cops” and wants those officers held accountable, Slaymaker said. “We do not ever want someone to tarnish the badge of all by allowing them to not be held accountable,” he said.
Early Police Department
The seven-member Early Police Department has been stable with no turnover in the past two or three years, Mercer said. “But if we have anybody leave, which is always possible, then there’s not a lot of applicants out there,” Mercer said. “There’s just not a lot of people .. and really, it’s everywhere.
“Early in my time here, we had a lot of applicants. And then all this started in the last few years and we don’t see a lot.”
The “all this” Mercer referred to included the controversy, rioting and protests that followed the Aug. 9, 2014 shooting of an 18-year-old black male by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
“So much media coverage, I think lately, with the mainstream media downplaying the officers’ role and always critiquing everything when they don’t publish the whole story sometimes … I know it makes officers hesitant in some things they do, because they’re going to get raked over the coals, so to speak,” Mercer said.
“It’s really when all the riots and (events) started (happening) … every time there’s a shooting, social media tears them up because everybody’s so quick to judge when they don’t even know the whole story. And then there are some chiefs that have hung officers out and terminated them, even before the investigation is done.”
Mercer said his department has good officers who are “all staying here for right now. But other places pay better, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see somebody go to a better paying job.”
At one time, Mercer said, “we’d have people call that were just kind of looking, and we’d hear of officers that were moving to the area or wanted to see if they could get a job, but you don’t hear that anymore.”
Reversing the trend will be tough because “it’s not just a local thing, it’s a nationwide thing,” Mercer said.
In a small department such as Early’s, being short-staffed would hurt, Mercer said. “We’ve got two out sick right now and everybody else is working their tails off trying to keep things covered,” he said.
A few miles down the road at the Law Enforcement Center, the sheriff’s office currently has two openings, for which three people have applied. Hill also said he recently learned that two deputies are seriously considering applying to become state troopers.
“From my point of view as sheriff of Brown County, as far as hiring and keeping personnel … (keeping) somebody employed is my biggest obstacle,” Hill said.
“I remember back when I first started in law enforcement, the waiting list to become a Brown County deputy was about 14 to 18 people deep. That’s how many people were wanting to get into law enforcement at that time. Now we have to scramble to get those positions filled.”
While there are some “great possibilities” with the three applicants the sheriff’s office has, Hill said, he’d like to have 20 or 30. “The more applicants you have, the more qualifications you may have from an individual,” Hill said.
Negative media coverage, attacks on officers and pay are among factors in reducing the ranks of applicants, Hill said.
“We’ve got to start paying them for what they’re worth,” Hill said. “We’ve got to be competitive.”
Inexperienced deputies may “get a couple of years under their belt (and) go to better paying departments,” Hill said. “They can walk across the hall to the Brownwood Police Department and make several thousand dollars more a year that what they make here as a deputy sheriff.
“We put so much resource into these individual deputies and jailers with their training and licenses as far as correction officers go, and we’re just throwing money up in the air because we can’t keep who we recruit. The jailers can drive half a mile away and make several thousand dollars more a year at TYC or G4S, or drive on the other side of town and go to work for TDCJ. It’s just a constant battle that we face.”
At the Brownwood Police Department, Nichols said the department is about to put two new officers to work, and the department will offer a written test on Feb. 23 to begin the process of filling two additional openings.
“During my year-and-a-half tenure here, we’ve run the gamut where we’ve had one person show up for a test – and we can’t have it because it’s not competitive … we’ve had it where just two people have shown up,” Nichols said. “I think the max we’ve had was seven people show up. So it is a struggle.”
But seven people showing up to test isn’t a bad number for a department the size of Brownwood’s, Nichols said, and he can’t say how many would test in previous years because he wasn’t here.
Nichols sees a change in the culture, and people aren’t as drawn to public service as they once were. The negative media coverage “certainly doesn’t help,” Nichols said. “I think that certainly does not help us on recruitment efforts when they see the way law enforcement is portrayed in the media. You see the violence against law enforcement. It can be a dangerous profession. It’s a calling, you know if you want to do this business.”
The Brownwood Police Department offers a $5,000 sign-on bonus, Nichols said.
A police academy is currently being taught at the Law Enforcement Center. “We will be actively recruiting from the academy, but they don’t graduate until August,” Nichols said.
Through events such as the Citizens Police Academy and National Night Out, Nichols said, the department continues “doing the positive things” that help promote “what law enforcement really is, what we’re really about, getting people to know us as human beings, not just as uniforms in a car driving down the road.
“I think it really starts to combat the negative stereotyping and the negative press that you see about law enforcement.”
Nichols said this spring’s Citizens Police Academy has been rescheduled for the fall.
Nichols also said the department has two openings for dispatchers and an opening for an animal control officer.
‘What are they
Slaymaker, of the TMPA, said the mainstream media has misrepresented many police incidents and “promoted straight-up falsehoods” that have damaged the relationship beween law enforcement and the communities it serves. “It is perceived that the trust people had in the police is gone,” Slaymaker said.
“It is perceived that everything they do is not only questioned, but they are guilty of the worst until they can prove otherwise. When you take away the belief that the public loves them, respects them, trusts them and appreciates them, what are they left with?”
Slaymaker said it’s important to understand what it means to be a police officer.
It’s not easy to become a Texas officer, Slaymaker said, noting that an applicant must have a “squeaky clean” record for his or her entire life before applying.
“Once you become an officer, you give up a lot of what a normal ‘citizen’ enjoys,” Slaymaker said. “ … The people you are dealing with day in and day out are normally the 20 percent of society that is not always the greatest. Police deal with those 20 percent, 80 percent of the time. Every single day, an officer will be seen by someone in that 20 percent that wants to hurt or kill them simply because of the uniform they wear.
“This is where it is critical to understand what sets police officers apart. It is a commitment to a greater cause than one’s self. It is about duty, honor, integrity and service to the community. It is about them believing that the community they serve truly does appreciate them and truly trusts them to do the right thing. That is it. That’s what makes an officer take on this job.”