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I-TEAM: Is the thin blue line getting thinner due to COVID-19 and police protests?

Published: Jul. 2, 2020 at 4:14 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Could civil unrest coupled with coronavirus constraints lead to another crisis -- a thinner police force on our streets?

Black Lives Matter could be one of the most influential social justice movements in decades, but some feel this pivotal moment is leaving good officers feeling targeted along with the bad apples.

Could that, and a global pandemic, equal fewer men and women signing up to protect and serve?

From north to south, and from sea to shining sea, a movement is unfolding during the midst of the biggest health crisis of the century.

The pandemic has not stopped protests across America.

While some were violent, near George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, and in New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta, many demonstrations were peaceful, including those here in Augusta and Aiken.

They’re also impactful. Police reform is being talked about from Capitol Hill to city hall. But still, tensions between a fraction of a frustrated public -- and public safety officers -- are reaching a boiling point in parts of our country.

“I probably don’t have much longer to go and yes, I’m ready to get out,” Richard Dixon, a manager at the Georgia Police Academy in Columbia County and Athens, said.

Dixon’s been on the job for more than 30 years.

“I have had friends who are seasoned officers that have stepped out to retire or go to the private sector mainly because of what is going on right now,” Dixon said.

Dixon went further and said it’s just not worth it for them anymore. On top of that, Dixon says the police reform and racial equality movement is much bigger than what happened after Rodney King incident in the 1990′s and the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.

“I believe so, and I believe it’s because of social media,” Dixon said.

We analyzed information from the police executive research forum that found five years after Ferguson, nationally law enforcement reported the profession was in a workforce crisis with “fewer people are applying to become police officers.”

Another study found the vast majority of officers were worried about their personal safety more than ever before -- again this was five years after Ferguson.

Eight in 10 officers say their job is harder today because of high profile incidents. Keep in mind this was before COVID-19 and before the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks leading to the protests of 2020.
Eight in 10 officers say their job is harder today because of high profile incidents. Keep in mind this was before COVID-19 and before the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks leading to the protests of 2020.((Source: WRDW))

As a result, recruitment doesn’t look too good, according to Dixon.

“I hate to say it, but I believe we will see it go down,” Dixon said.

“People are not going to want to come in this for $35,000 a year to be looked at like the bad guy, and that’s hard for me to say.”

Dixon says for new recruits, the pay may not be worth the risk.

We analyzed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and found the national median salary for police and detectives was about $65,000 in 2019.

We looked further and found Georgia ranks 6th lowest in the country for law enforcement pay at $44,700 and South Carolina is the 5th lowest at $43,520.
We looked further and found Georgia ranks 6th lowest in the country for law enforcement pay at $44,700 and South Carolina is the 5th lowest at $43,520.((Source: WRDW))

Jackie Swindler trains new officers as the director of the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy. He hoped the pandemic would lead to more cadets. Law enforcement is an essential job with a steady paycheck, but now he is unsure.

“There are young people who may say I am not sure if I want to stand on the line and have people spit on me and throw rocks and bricks at me simply because I represent authority, so I don’t know what this will do for recruiting and retention,” Swindler said.

Swindler and Dixon both say before the protests, the coronavirus nationwide shutdown was already impacting recruiting because classes were closed. With social distancing, they will now have to be smaller.

“As long as we are dealing with the COVID, we will have smaller numbers -- one to a dorm room, 10-20 to a classroom,” Swindler said.

The South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy says in 2020 they’ll have about 20 fewer recruits compared to 2018. The Georgia Police Academy said in 2018, they turned out 305 cadets.
The South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy says in 2020 they’ll have about 20 fewer recruits compared to 2018. The Georgia Police Academy said in 2018, they turned out 305 cadets.((Source: WRDW))
The South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy says in 2020 they’ll have about 20 fewer recruits compared to 2018. The Georgia Police Academy said in 2018, they turned out 305 cadets.
The South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy says in 2020 they’ll have about 20 fewer recruits compared to 2018. The Georgia Police Academy said in 2018, they turned out 305 cadets.((Source: WRDW))

Swindler says historic events -- both bad and good -- heavily impact recruitment.

“Obviously after 9/11 people wanting to be patriotic and they wanted to give back to the country, so they joined the military and joined law enforcement,” Swindler said. “We were more popular.”

Both leaders say they have hope the pendulum will swing back in favor of jobs in public safety -- jobs that were considered essential in the coronavirus shutdown. But it’s not just a job for many who do put on the badge, it’s a calling.

“There was a Harvard study that came out this year and they studied people who are happy in their job and the two things they found that made people happy in their job was the ability to help others and the ability to continuously learn, and there is no better job to help others than law enforcement, and you are constantly learning,” Swindler said.

Right now, they’re learning they need better communication with the communities they serve in hopes of a solution.

“They are trying to work on it now,” Swindler said. “They are calling it police reform.”

“I would like to see more education on the citizen’s side.”

As America sees law enforcement at it’s worse, he hopes for peace and understanding before the thin blue line becomes even thinner.

We found people applying for a job in law enforcement is not a recruitment problem so far Columbia, Richmond, Aiken, and Burke counties. However, one of the challenges is finding qualified candidates -- not just officers with the right training, but officers with an understanding of the community they serve.

Copyright 2020 WRDW/WAGT. All rights reserved.

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