‘Tough time to be a cop’ Amid criticism, scrutiny, Lowcountry police see recruitment struggles

Deputy Michael Ackerman discusses different rules and regulations used with new recruits Friday at the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office.

When Tyrece Mitchell got an honorable discharge from the Marines last year, he wondered, “What’s next?”

He thought about the Army Special Forces. Then, he ran into a sheriff’s deputy at a gym and listened to the lawman’s pitch: We have a bomb squad, a SWAT team, a boat — almost everything the military has — and you can stay home.

But a caveat lingered in Mitchell’s mind: Near-constant scrutiny of the law enforcement profession these days has made the line of work more stressful. More than ever, critics are ready to pounce on officers’ missteps.

“It definitely played a factor,” the 23-year-old Huger resident said. “But I realize there are always two sides to every story. ... And I always wanted to help people, so I went after it.”

With controversial deaths and high-profile allegations of brutality nationwide, policing has had a rough few years, and that’s starting to show in recruitment of new law officers in the Charleston area, officials said. A robust local economy also is luring qualified candidates from public service to the private sector.

Mitchell joined the latest hiring class at the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office. But perhaps more than others in the Lowcountry, the agency has struggled to find willing folks like him. The force has 287 deputies now, but it’s short about 32 officers. Its jail has 60 vacancies for correctional officers.

North Charleston, embattled over last year’s shooting death of Walter Scott, has 16 openings on its force of 357.

Sheriff’s officials have turned to new recruitment methods. They took out advertising space on two public buses and started a recruiting Twitter account in hopes of enticing young people. On Friday, they put up an electronic billboard along Interstate 26, said sheriff’s Maj. Eric Watson, the deputy who met Mitchell in the gym.

“You have to look at the broader picture,” said Watson, who oversees the agency’s recruiter. “Our economy here is robust. Folks considering going into law enforcement are going into the private sector instead. And given the current environment where law enforcement in general is being portrayed in a negative light, some folks have reservations on applying.”

Local police officials point to social media and the news as influential forces. Facebook and Twitter are quick to spread misconduct allegations. Journalists delve into the issues, but even they don’t always tell the whole story, the officials said.

“I am pretty sure that the overwhelmingly one-sided and negative articles don’t do anything to help recruiting,” Berkeley County Chief Deputy Mike Cochran said. “Law enforcement is a calling, and thankfully we are still able to reach enough people that are willing to step up.”

The Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office has 163 deputies and eight openings. The base salary is $33,000.

The agency often uses Facebook to increase its stock with the public, from which it draws recruits. Cochran noted a recent post featuring a photo of two pit bull puppies drinking water from a deputy’s hands. It has been shared 900 times.

Earlier this year, a deputy posed with her comrades and a police dog as she recovered from gunshot wounds. The picture reached 150,000 people.

The negativity will subside eventually, Cochran said. A nationwide Gallup poll in December showed that 56 percent of those surveyed had high regard for officers’ honesty and ethics, ranking them above clergy and journalists. Nurses were at the top.

The confidence in police has held steady, despite the tempest bearing down on them.

“At the end of the day, we are on the right side of the law, and people love us for it,” Cochran said. “I’m confident that the pendulum will swing back.”

While some agencies may want for officers, a steady stream of new recruits continues to flow into the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy, which hosts a 12-week training course.

The problems come after they show up for class and even after they hit the streets for the agencies that hired them.

Academy Director Hubert Harrell put it simply in his newsletter this month: “It’s a tough time to be a cop.”

“Many bail out,” he continued, “because of the fear of intense criticism and ridicule from the community they serve because of the mistakes of others.”

The latest recruit class of 70 was whittled down to 43 by graduation Friday. Some fail academically or get discouraged and go home, academy spokeswoman Florence McCants said. Still more troubling, she said, is that nearly half of the graduates quit within their first year on the job.

For some, the work is not what they thought it would be, McCants said. Maybe the pay isn’t what they hoped for.

“It’s also really hard to be a part of the profession that we love so much but hear people criticize,” she said. “Why would they want to do this job for people who don’t appreciate it?”

It’s not for the faint-hearted, she said, but those who see it as their calling stick with it. The pay will come around, too.

A week ago, the Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office boosted its base salary by $5,000 a year. Employees new to the profession get $35,500, and certified officers start at $38,900.

Already, one deputy who had left the agency has returned, and another is due back shortly, sheriff’s Capt. Tony Phinney said.

“We were really suffering because ... every agency around us was paying more,” Phinney said. “People left to make more money.”

For the most part, the deputies are riding out the increased pressure, he said. They now strap on body cameras — a result of the public outcry over police-involved deaths.

“If you’re doing the right things,” Phinney said, “everything evens out in the end.”

Now, Charleston County’s pay lags slightly behind Phinney’s agency.

For entry-level candidates, the yearly base pay in the area’s largest county is about $35,000 — a salary that makes it difficult to compete with employers like Boeing and Volvo.

“Historically, we have not had difficulty in recruiting,” Sheriff Al Cannon said. “We are having difficulty now.”

The shortfall is due partially to the 16 jobs that the agency added recently.

The recruitment effort that ensued is far-reaching. Recruiters have gone to job fairs from Trident Technical College to Clemson University. They have sought people outside South Carolina.

“We’re being very creative,” Watson said.

Candidates must have either a two- or four-year college degree, at least two years of certified law enforcement experience or, like Mitchell, an honorable military discharge.

Mitchell sat in a class recently with four other trainees and learned the ins and outs of writing an incident report. His teacher was Michael Ackerman, a former patrol deputy who was wounded in a 2014 shooting that killed a fellow lawman.

Mitchell knows the dangers and criticism he could face in his new job. But he’s ready. Besides, he said, his mom taught him the morals to deal with it.

“This is something I need to do,” he said.

Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.