GREENSBORO — “You can go out and do the right thing in this job and be sued and be fired. That is a truth,” Greensboro police Sgt. Ryan Todd said.
“It gives a lot of pause to a lot of officers,” said Todd, who’s in charge of recruitment for the Greensboro Police Department. “It definitely affects our retention rate.”
But the department still has plenty of people applying to be officers, Todd said.
“The courageous will still come and apply; we still get them,” he said.
That courage goes beyond facing the risk of being killed in the line of duty. It also encompasses intense scrutiny from news organizations, volatile criticism on social media and law enforcement officers being seen by some as the enemy.
The degree of difficulty in filling law enforcement positions, and keeping the veteran officers, varies among Triad agencies. Pay plays a big part in who’s able to attract and keep applicants, and if the economy is good, filling these positions is even tougher.
To combat this, some agencies have relaxed rules prohibiting facial hair and visible tattoos and even allow some minor drug convictions.
Even an abundance of vacancies can be used in recruitment, as is the case with the Highway Patrol, which is trying to fill 222 positions for sworn officers, those who have to take an oath to serve.
“With a state agency, people are really concerned about where they have to go,” said Trooper Michael Mitchell, recruiter for Troop D, which includes Guilford, Rockingham, Alamance and Randolph counties.
Those who graduate from the agency’s Basic Patrol School get a “wish list” of three counties in which they would prefer to work. “The last two patrol schools we’ve had, everyone has gotten something off their wish list,” Mitchell said.
Although that will change as vacancies get filled, for now, it’s a selling point.
John Eberle of Greensboro said flexibility was a factor for him in choosing to pursue becoming a trooper.
“My then-fiancee didn’t know where she was going to be working,” said the 23-year-old, who was preparing to go to Basic Patrol School late last month. Pay and benefits also played a part in his decision, he said.
Cadets get paid $37,323, and their pay is boosted to $44,000 upon graduation, with a 6.5% annual raise. Master troopers get a base pay of $64,000. Upon retirement, former troopers get 103% of the average salary of their top four earning years, Mitchell said.
In Greensboro, the department’s policy of paying recruits as they go through Basic Law Enforcement Training gives it an advantage, Todd said. The state-mandated training takes about 16 weeks.
“We typically pay higher than even the job you would get if you went to Kernersville and became a police officer; we start you at a higher salary as a trainee than you would get if you went through BLET and then got the job there,” Todd said. “So people compete to get into our agencies.”
Todd said the agency gets about 1,400 applications a year and typically hires about 6% of those applicants. The starting salary is $38,222 a year.
Greensboro, which Todd said competes with Raleigh and Charlotte, also has an advantage because it pre-hires applicants with full pay and benefits while they’re waiting to enter one of the twice-yearly police academies. One recent hire awaiting the Sept. 1 academy start date spends half her day working out at the training center, which keeps her physically ready for the six-month-long police academy, Todd said. The rest of the day she performs tasks such as helping with the department’s Safety Town program for children or calling owners of recovered stolen property.
“We go ahead and use that vacancy within the agency to put her in it, and we get a lot out of that,” Todd said. “She gets the (physical training) part of it, and she knows a lot about the agency ... and she’ll be a lot more apt to pass those classes,” he said. “So we feel like we get something for our money.”
Todd said he keeps in close contact with applicants.
“If you’ve applied with Raleigh and Charlotte, and we can call you first, generally we find that people will come to the place to call them first — because I’m giving you a job,” he said.
A no-rotation schedule also helps with recruitment, Todd said.
“We work four days on four days off (11-hour shifts), so that is very attractive. You only work four days a week in this career, and then you get a four-day weekend.”
There are four different shifts, and “some of those shifts are really good for family life,” he said. It can backfire, though, with a few employees using the time to start their own business and then leaving the force to focus on that business.
Pay also is an issue for the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office, which has a starting salary of between $36,731 for someone with a high school diploma and $42,131 for someone with a master’s degree.
“I recently did just a quick little study to see where we fell with surrounding agencies, and we’re pretty low on the list,” said Lt. Tommy Sluder.
A pay study for all employees will be presented to the county commissioners soon, he said, and he hopes that will result in higher pay for deputies.
“Today’s generation is more concerned about salary than fringe benefits,” Sluder said.
For some, the risks are not worth the pay.
“We run the numbers and show them and they’re like, eh, naw ... not (enough money) for the liability of the job and the safety factor,” Sluder said. “The pay is not equal to the hazard, for lack of a better term.”
Pay also affects retention, he said. For awhile, the county froze merit increases, he said.
“That set us further back. We’ve never been able to catch up from that freeze,” he said. The past couple of years the county has allowed a 3% merit increase.
Under Sheriff Danny Rogers, the agency now allows a neatly trimmed goatee or beard.
And the sheriff’s office hopes to begin paying candidates while they complete their training, making the agency more competitive. However, that has not yet been approved, Sluder said.
Madison Police Chief Mike Rutherford, whose agency pays just shy of $36,000, finds the city’s location one of his greatest recruitment challenges.
“They can go to Greensboro, 30 minutes away, and they will get a two- or three-thousand-dollar raise walking in the door,” Rutherford said. “And to a young officer with a family, that’s a lot of money.”
To combat that flight to the bigger cities, Rutherford said the department now allows goatees — as long as it’s neatly trimmed — a policy change he enacted last year.
“That’s a big recruitment with younger officers,” Rutherford said.
Family time is another perk. If the officer is not busy, “I’ll allow them to go to the school and eat with (their) child. If you’re working patrol, and your son’s over here playing football at the middle school, I allow you to check out over there and at least be present for a minute,” said Rutherford, who oversees 20 police officers. “That’s things that you’re not going to get at a larger agency.”
Rutherford recently hired a woman who turned down two larger agencies.
“She has roots to this community, she graduated at our local high school, she went to Basic Law Enforcement Training here, she lives in town. And she said, ‘I want to work in my community.’
“And that’s what we push,” Rutherford said. “Charlotte hires people from Kansas. … I can’t compete with that.”
He also blames the media for some of the recruitment problems.
“We’ve got to change some of this perception in the media that we’re demonized,” Rutherford said. “And I can’t fix that. I think we have to get back to respecting law enforcement.”
Alex Nickerson, a 24-year-old female officer who joined the Madison force, said she likes the variety offered by a small department.
“We deal with everything,” said Nickerson, who grew up in Madison. “You get a lot of community interaction.”
Finding qualified applicants is always a challenge, said Capt. Anthro Gamble of the High Point Police Department.
“Recent drug use knocks a lot of people out immediately,” said Gamble, noting that the department receives about 1,600 applications a year.
Still, the department only has eight vacancies out of 255 sworn positions.
“Would we like to be full, sure,” Gamble said. “I mean, what agency wouldn’t like to be full, but we’re in the single digits right now. I think that’s pretty good.”
The department will pay the most promising applicants as they go through training, Gamble said. And this year High Point changed from rotating shifts to permanent shifts, which also helps attract applicants and retain officers, he said.
“Also, we are known for how much we train. We train every other month 10½ hours,” Gamble said, adding that the state only requires 24 hours of training a year.
“We are a training agency, and I think when people hear that, that’s what makes them want to come here, stay safe and go home and be confident in what they’re doing.
“People always want to be better, so you want to go to that agency that always wants to improve. That’s why I don’t think many people leave, either.”
Women and minorities
Overall, law enforcement agencies still struggle to represent the population they serve.
“One of the challenges still remaining today is recruiting female and minority candidates,” said Jim Gunn, who oversees Rockingham Community College’s Basic Law Enforcement Training program. “It’s still a male-dominated profession.
“I had one class with 20 males and one female, and she dropped out the first week of the class,” Gunn said. “Her fiancé didn’t want her to be involved in law enforcement.”
Rutherford said a female officer “can just about write her ticket now, because there’s so few of them.”
“Everybody’s looking for them,” he said.
One of his officers, Nickerson, was approached by a Highway Patrol trooper while at the Peace Officers Memorial in Greensboro. He handed her a business card, encouraging her to apply.
“We’re poaching each other’s people,” Rutherford said.
Madison has one Asian officer and just recently lost its sole black officer to a larger agency that pays better, Rutherford said. Two other black officers retired from the department.
“When you do get (minority) applicants, they’re going to Greensboro and Winston — more pay and more opportunity. It is really a struggle for smaller departments to hire diversity,” he said.
Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough said his department as a whole, which is 70% white, is more diverse than ever.
“I don’t take credit for that,” he said. “I’m just grateful.”
He said one of the recruiters is a black female, who goes across the state looking for candidates.
“You stand there and you say ‘Whoa, that’s not a typical recruiter,’ ” said Kimbrough, who is black. “Right away you know ... that’s an opportunity there.”