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New City of Charleston police recruits, left to right, Creighton McDermott,Samantha Toney and Thomas McNamara learn techniques in a defensive tactics class as part of the city's pre-academy program Tuesday, March 5, 2019 in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

As police departments nationwide struggle to build up forces with the skills necessary to engage their communities and deter evolving forms of crime, Charleston police have already implemented the steps that experts are recommending to their peers.

Charleston Police Department was one of more than 400 North American law enforcement agencies that participated in the Police Executive Research Forum and sent two officers to join about 250 experts and professionals at a December 2018 meeting about the study.

The study, released in September, distilled the departments' concerns into three main issues: most agencies are seeing fewer applicants, more officers are leaving the profession before retirement, and a higher percentage of the nation's officers are reaching retirement age.

A quarter of departments report a shortage of full-time personnel is about the same as it was five years ago, while 41 percent said it had increased.

Hiring more bodies isn't the answer. New recruits need increasing awareness of three facets of policing, the forum found: an increased focus on community engagement, officers' growing role in addressing social problems and criminals' increasingly complex use of technology. 

Charleston Officer Terry Cherry wasn't surprised by what she heard at the conference. Even before stepping into her role as Charleston police's recruiting manager, bridging the public's misunderstandings and apprehension around sworn officers was key to her investigative work with the department.

"I always wondered why we didn't know everyone that lives in every house," Cherry said. "This isn't that big a city."

By the time her team had introduced themselves to all the residents on their beat, community members were giving officers leads and prompting suspects to turn themselves in.

Recruiting isn't much different, Cherry said, with relationships as the basis for every success.

She's recruited at 33 events over the past year, focusing on reaching potential candidates at black, Latino and LGBTQ events to meet a diverse pool of applicants and explain the department's commitment to them.

"It's hard to implement total change when the status quo has been a reality since the birth of the United States," Cherry said. "We're doing it slowly, but surely. ... To have a progressive police department attracts progressive people."

A 2019 Pew Research Center study found that 10 percent of respondents never trust police officers, while 69 percent trusted them only sometimes. Only 17 percent said they trusted them all or most of the time — more than religious leaders or elected officials, and less than public school principals.

"I find the community to be very supportive of law enforcement, particularly in Charleston, but as a whole society doesn't look fondly on police officers," Cherry said.

She won't try to convince a doubter to join up. But for locals confident in their career choice, Charleston is ensuring that every level of the department is welcoming to new recruits.

CPD offers the highest beginning salary in South Carolina, Cherry said, starting at $39,730.25 for high school graduates and over $50,000 for certified officers with bachelors degrees. Nearby departments aren't far behind, with Hanahan officers starting between $36,500 and $49,000, while Goose Creek offers at least $36,897 for any South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy certification.

"Society is asking for people to have more skill sets within law enforcement, deal with more social issues, have more education," Cherry said. "But the pay is not like an attorney's or a doctor's."

Average career length has decreased in nearly half of surveyed departments, and increased in just 15 percent. Of the voluntary resignations each department sees, 69 percent of them occur in the officers' first five years with the department, and 22 percent of those happened before the end of the first year on the force.

While about 10 Charleston police leave for federal government jobs each year, Cherry said, the department doesn't lose many to other agencies in the area. Others leave for family reasons or, increasingly, pursue jobs in the private sector.

PERF's recommendations to departments include finding ways to recruit a diverse workforce, creating recruiting messages that reflect that reality of police work, streamlining applications processes, increasing relevant training and creating opportunities for advancement.

Charleston police identified those points about five years ago, Cherry said, and have since implemented each of them. She's glad other departments are joining.

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Reach Sara Coello at 843-937-5705 and follow her on Twitter @smlcoello.