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I-TEAM | Why are law enforcement academies struggling for recruits?

Published: Nov. 4, 2021 at 7:31 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - The I-Team found law enforcement training academies across the two-state are struggling to find new recruits. What’s worse, agencies in Georgia and South Carolina are hemorrhaging losses of experienced officers – quitting or retiring early.

Senior I-Team investigative reporter Liz Owens talked to one man whose been robbed three times and fears what’s to come – if more police are not hired and trained.

It was one year ago that law enforcement leaders in Georgia and South Carolina said they feared a mass exodus was coming. We spent weeks recently analyzing new data and found that possibility is now – a reality.

Sonny Dabi stays about as busy at Denmark Grocery as the criminals do in town.

Liz: “So three times? Aug. 31 and two times in September?”

Sonny: “Yes, Sept first.”

The first time he says someone pulled a gun and shot at him in an attempted robbery in late August. The following day someone robbed his store and then it happened again a few weeks later.

Sonny: “The worst in one month no result.”

Liz: “No result and you called police every time and nothing?”

Sonny: “Nothing.”

Dabi says he told Denmark police he has surveillance video of the recent robbery. A month later, he says, investigators have yet to come get it.

Sonny: “Crime increase because police don’t want to take any action.”

In a town with a population of less than 3,000 the I-Team found crime in Denmark South Carolina is two and half times higher the national average.

Residents blame the police department which we found only has six officers two of which are still in the academy. Across the river in another small town some residents in Hephzibah are questioning the actions of their officers after a man was detained and then arrested – for singing while walking on a sidewalk in broad daylight.

The I-Team found out of the 11 officers on the force at the Hephzibah Police Department – nearly half are brand new to law enforcement including the police chief himself. Or have been fired from previous positions in law enforcement.

Richard Dixon is the director of the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Athens and Columbia County.

Dixon: “We always go back to recruiting and training a lot of problems can be taken care of through good recruiting.”

But the I-Team found there is a big problem with recruitment this year. Dixon first told us last year he was worried about the fallout from police turmoil in the Black Lives Matter Movement – combined with low pay and public perception of law enforcement.

We crunched the numbers. Pre-pandemic and pre-social justice movement data shows the training center graduated 1,124 new cadets in 2019. This year? Only 885. That’s a 21 percent drop in the number of new officers entering the field of law enforcement in Georgia.

Liz: “Have you ever seen it drop?”

Dixon: “(Shakes head no) We saw it in 2008 but nothing like this.”

The I-Team uncovered an even more startling reality in South Carolina. The South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy turned out 1,196 new officers in 2019. This year? 819. A more than 31 percent drop in new officers. Now compare that data to this: Another 813 South Carolina officers quit in 2019. As of October 5th this year another 971 turned in their badge. Bottom line – the I-Team found more officers are leaving the field in South Carolina than are entering it.

Dixon: “When those guys leave that’s a lot of experience leaving that’s not being experience.”

Liz: “What does experience teach you in the field?”

Dixon: “How to deal with people how to communicate.”

Communities are losing more than just the number of officers on the streets. They are losing the familiar face patrolling through their neighborhood.

Liz: “So who is left if the people who have the passion for it aren’t applying?”

Dixon: “We tell people this is a calling like a preacher but if the people who are being called are scared to pull the trigger and get into the field who does that leave? It leaves people who are just looking for a job.”

A job we found that barely covers the cost of living in most communities. Georgia and South Carolina both made Forbes’ top ten list where police earn the least amount of money.

Then add in public scrutiny, stress, and COVID-19. The virus is now the number one cause of death among law enforcement.

In Augusta alone, we have lost eight members of law enforcement just since August 2020 – all to complications from COVID-19.

Dixon: “There has always been an ebb and flow back and forth and we have always managed to get through that but it’s starting to wear and tear and people. People who I work with who said I’ll stay here until I am 65 are starting to retire.”

The fear of another robbery or worse is also beginning to wear on Sonny in Denmark.

Sonny: “It looks like they don’t want to take any action on this kind of thing because they think people who own the store are responsible for that. Police not responsible for robbery or if someone is killed.”

As the blue line becomes even thinner Denmark Grocery and businesses like it all across the two state become an even bigger sitting duck.

The Cares Act grants for law enforcement to increase recruitment/retention. Breakdown of Grants by Dept. visit: 2021-22 Police and Law Enforcement Grants.

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