Baton Rouge law enforcement leaders say recruitment numbers are down

Source: WAFB
Source: WAFB
Source: WAFB
Source: WAFB
Source: WAFB
Source: WAFB

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Call it the Ferguson effect, call it a high-risk, low-pay job. Law enforcement in the capital region is coming up short on staff and recruitment numbers are way down.

"We're just doing what we have to until we can get by through this," said East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux.

Over the past few years, law enforcement leaders at all levels say getting people to join the ranks has been difficult. Last year did not help. In the summer of 2016, protesters lined the streets of Baton Rouge to protest police conduct following the shooting death of Alton Sterling. Then, just weeks later, three law enforcement officers were gunned down in an ambush attack on Airline Highway. Three others were wounded.

"It's hurt the issue of recruitment, obviously," said Interim Baton Rouge Police Chief Jonny Dunnam.

From the sheriff's office to state police, law enforcement leaders say they are short staffed. At BRPD, there are roughly 60 vacancies. Records show that's the most vacancies at one time since January of 2011, when there were 62 vacancies. This, as the parish is breaking murder records.

"Our homicide division is probably the shortest it's ever been," Dunnam said. "We're at eight homicide detectives, we'd like to at least have 12. Maybe more."

At other agencies, there is a similar story. EBRSO is about 100 deputies short, and they are more than 100 troopers short at Louisiana State Police. Added to that, 270 troopers are eligible to retire in the spring. That's equivalent to about a quarter of the force.

Such a shortage has consequences.

"When you look at us boosting up for operations such as Mardi Gras in New Orleans, we sometimes in the past few years have had to take people out of our plain clothes divisions and put them in uniform just so we can have the numbers to be seen on the streets," said Col. Kevin Reeves, superintendent of LSP.

The vacancies issue is only fueled by challenges surrounding recruitment, a problem that law enforcement leaders say is not unique to just the Baton Rouge area, but is instead felt nationwide. "We used to look at a thousand or more candidates. We're down to looking at a couple of hundred," Reeves said.

"Used to be we'd have around 400 applicants for a 30-man academy," Dunnam said. "Right now, our academy that's upcoming that we're hoping for the beginning of the year, we're seeing 160 applicants."

But while diagnosing the problem is one thing, finding the cure is not so easy. Turning the tide, in part, may require changing what some people think about the police. Doing so could make law enforcement a more desirable career path.

In many ways, the shortage of officers and the vacancies has only made the job harder, causing longer hours and more work for those currently on the force. The job profile has also expanded to more than just crime fighting. At times, for example, they are required to provide medical care. Added to that, police across the country are under increased scrutiny, fueled by cell phone videos of violent interactions between law enforcement and the public.

"I've never seen in my 42 years in law enforcement the adversity toward law enforcement that you see today, the indifference towards law enforcement that you see today," Gautreaux said.

However, improving public image and public trust cannot be accomplished overnight, and with agencies so short staffed, devoting officers to community policing and other outreach is not always possible, at least not to the level that leaders would like.

Then there is the issue of pay, especially for BRPD. Dunnam says pay for his officers is not on par with the pay at similarly sized agencies. His starting officers, on average, make $33,000 per year. For a job where someone can leave the house in the morning and have no guarantee of returning at the end of the day, he says that's a hard sell.

"It's tough to compete. It's not just competing against the other agencies, it's competing against private industry," Dunnam said.

EBR Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome called for a boost to officer pay in her budget plan for next year. And recently, members of the EBR metro council proposed a new tax to pay for a raise. However, there is no guarantee such a proposal will pass.

RELATED: EBR councilman promotes tax hike for BRPD pay raises; political analyst predicts challenges

In the meantime, law enforcement leaders are trying to flip the script. EBRSO has launched a new video, advertising a career in the force by appealing to a higher calling: service. "We don't manufacture some good or sell some commodity. We provide a service to the community," Gautreaux said.

That's an idea echoed by Gautreaux's two colleagues.

"Law enforcement is a calling, and we're looking for those individuals that want to come in and serve their community and do the right thing," Reeves said.

"It's a challenge. I think a lot of people like to accept that challenge," Dunnam said.

But if recent experience says anything, getting those challenge-seekers to apply could be a challenge in and of itself.

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