Cody Garrett thought becoming a police officer would be a natural transition after serving in the U.S. Navy.
But after two years, he turned in his badge, worn out by the stress, low pay and risk.
“You get a feeling of hopelessness,” he said.
Garrett is not alone.
About half of the South Carolina police academy graduates end up leaving law enforcement altogether within a year, according to the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy.
It’s a troubling trend the academy and some police departments are struggling to address. With fewer resources to work with, law enforcement agencies are being stretched thin trying to provide the public safety residents expect.
“We’re getting more to come in the door. … They’re just not staying in law enforcement,” said Maj. Florence McCants, the criminal justice academy’s administrative operations manager. “When the rubber hits the road, for various reasons, they’re just not staying in.”
Officer shortages aren’t just a South Carolina problem.
An April 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Justice shows the number of sworn police officers nationwide grew incrementally until 2012, when the total plummeted from 768,287 to 750,340.
That decline is reflected locally as well. The city of Spartanburg is authorized for 130 police officers but only has 122. It’s a change from past years, when the department was fully staffed, said Maj. Art Littlejohn, the city’s patrol commander.
The Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office is authorized to have 296 officers, but about 25 of those slots are vacant. Those openings “are because of folks retiring or leaving for better paying jobs,” said Sheriff’s Office Lt. Kevin Bobo.
One result of the vacancies is that there are fewer officers to cover shifts, creating more work for those who remain. It’s not unusual for officers to pick up overtime or work double shifts.
Garrett said he can remember times when there were just four patrol officers working a shift in the city of Spartanburg, which has about 38,000 residents. Littlejohn said it’s a constant juggling act to honor officers’ leave requests and ensure shifts are adequately covered.
Low pay, high risk and increased public scrutiny are the main reasons fewer people are going into or staying in the profession, according to law enforcement leaders in Spartanburg County.
Spartanburg County Sheriff Chuck Wright said improving salaries is particularly important to him, because it affects the department’s ability to retain deputies.
“Most every deputy we’ve lost has resigned, and every single one of them has been because they can’t pay their bills,” Wright said. “And I can honestly say they’re not living above their means. Most of them live in the low-income homes.”
While starting salaries for deputies in the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office are currently $30,285, new deputies in Greenville County start at $37,073. Greenville County also offers a 4 percent pay increase after deputies complete their introductory period.
“These guys are not seeing a pay increase and counties around them are,” Wright said. “It gets them very frustrated. Some are resigning to make a little money in the private sector.”
Greer Police Department Lt. Jimmy Holcombe said law enforcement agencies face the same challenges as private businesses.
“Officers will see that Greenville city or other agencies are paying a little more, and they will think that the grass is greener somewhere else,” he said. “Or the officer decides that law enforcement is not their true calling and they get out of the career field to try to make a better living.”
Garrett, the former Spartanburg city police officer, was one of them.
Since leaving the force, he’s made a career out of blogging about law enforcement and producing YouTube commentaries about police practices and high-profile cases.
“Shortly after leaving, I was making more money from (YouTube and blogging) than I was at the department,” Garrett said.
Officer safety has also had an impact on recruitment in recent years.
Last year, 135 officers were killed in the line of duty, up from 123 in 2015. A recent study by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund found that 21 of those deaths were attributed to ambush-style attacks.
Low deputy pay
There were 469 assaults against officers in 2015, compared with 265 in 2014, and there were 91 cases of intimidation in 2015, compared with 34 in 2014, the report found.
Ten officers have been murdered in South Carolina between 2006 and 2015, according to the report.
Wright said the dangers underscore how little officers are paid relative to what they do.
“We’re the only group of people that’s had to bury an employee because he gave his life on the line,” Wright said. “We give them tourniquets and vests because we get spit on, kicked, cussed at, shot at, and they try to run over them and stab them. No one else has that kind of protection when they go to work. It’s not the same danger.”
Littlejohn said safety concerns have definitely played a role in officer retention.
“We have officers get out because their spouse is in fear. You can imagine going to work every day, and your family members are constantly worrying about (your) safety,” Littlejohn said.
That factor played heavily into Garrett’s departure.
“My kids were getting a little bit older. They watch the news, and my son would say, ‘Don’t get shot’ and stuff like that, like ‘don’t die at work,’” Garret said.
Some officers have also felt unjustly scrutinized in the wake of several high-profile police shootings.
In South Carolina, the killing of Walter Scott, an unarmed black motorist, by a white North Charleston police officer, made national news, contributing to an ongoing debate over how law enforcement treats black men.
Any such case has the potential to negatively impact the public’s perception of law enforcement and discourage interest in the field, Littlejohn said.
“There are citizens here who overwhelmingly support us. There are thousands of officers who do it right every day, then one mistake by an officer and it affects the entire law enforcement profession,” Littlejohn said. “Some people may not find that appealing.”
Tackling the problems
To address officer shortages, departments are coming up with incentives to attract new candidates.
The Spartanburg Police Department recently increased salaries for police officers, setting aside funds to give pay increases to patrol officers with seven to 14 years of service.
Spartanburg County Council, too, recently gave preliminary approval to a salary increase that would raise deputies’ starting pay to $37,000. Wright, who had urged the council to pass a pay hike, said the need is great.
“People are really starting to pay attention to the fact that people who cut grass are making more than a deputy,” he said.
The Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, which has 55 sworn deputies and three vacant positions, has also taken steps to improve salaries. The county budget includes a proposal to raise deputies’ base pay from $32,968 to $33,957.
In Greer, where the police department is currently at full staff with 57 sworn officers, Holcombe said they focus heavily on benefits, such as gym reimbursements and year-end bonuses. He said the department also offers training opportunities for officers interested in becoming detectives or working in other roles.
Turnover is generally low, Holcombe said, with only two or three departures a year. He said careful screening plays a role in that as well.
“During the recruiting phase, we don’t take shortcuts. We do pre-tests, polygraphs, psychological, and physicals on all our applicants,” Holcombe said. “If someone comes from another department, we try to see what type of officer they were there. We always try to find people that believe in community policing and are in this profession for the right reasons.”
Union County Sheriff David Taylor said a rigorous hiring process has helped keep vacancies low. All of the department’s 30 sworn deputy positions are filled.
“We’re doing more thorough background checks. We’re also looking at how long they stay on the job, how many times they changed jobs in the past five years, the past 10 years. We look more for people who have the tendency to have better longevity,” Taylor said.
Agencies are also stepping up efforts to improve officer safety through the purchase of new equipment and more training.
The Spartanburg Police Department spent $550,000 to equip officers with Tasers and body cameras, which provide additional protection and boost morale, Littlejohn said.
In Columbia, McCants said the academy has increased its class sizes, from 60 in previous years to more than 70 now, to create a larger pool of candidates to draw from when vacancies occur.
Ultimately, though, the desire to serve has to be there for those who want to work in law enforcement, Littlejohn said.
“It’s a calling,” Littlejohn said. “You have to want to do it.”