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The National Police Shortage Impacts Florida’s Polk County

In 2020, 86 percent of the nation’s police departments reported staffing shortages, including the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. But the lack of officers isn’t due to the pandemic; numbers have been down since 2013.

(TNS) — Police agencies nationwide are experiencing an officer shortage. Officials and experts are saying it's not a result of COVID-19.

Risdon Slate, a criminology professor at Florida Southern College, said the National Police Foundation reported a nationwide shortage based on its recent survey.

"They're saying that in 2020, 86 percent of departments reported a staffing shortage across the country," Slate said.

He said before the recent shortage, the number of officers being sworn in increased nationwide between 1997 and 2013.

"2013 to 2016 the number dropped by more than 23 percent," Slate said. "And now, in 2020, it has dropped even further in terms of a shortage."

In Polk County, law enforcement agencies are experiencing a noticeable shortage as well.

The Polk County Sheriff's Office had 3,070 applications in 2020 and hired 84 new deputies compared with the 3,427 applications and 92 hired officers in 2019.

Sheriff Grady Judd said the shortage isn't because of a lack of applications.

"This is nothing new since COVID," he said. "We only hire about 10 percent of the applicants that apply to work at the Sheriff's Office."

Judd said the number of applications the Sheriff's Office receives may not accurately represent the amount of interest because a percentage of applicants know they don't meet the minimum requirements or are a convicted felon, just to say they're looking for a job to keep their unemployment benefits.

"Every day we get those kinds of applicants," Judd said. "We probably have 400-500 at any given time. We had 470 to apply just last month alone."

He said a lot of the reason the Sheriff's Office only hires about 10 percent of the applicants comes down to drugs.

"It's not that they're just taking the illegal drugs, it's that it's against the law," Judd said. "So, they're committing either misdemeanors or felonies by using drugs. That's probably 80 percent to 85 percent of our issue."

Lakeland Police Department Assistant Chief Hans Lehman said he too has seen a shortage in the past couple of years. In 2018 LPD had 569 applicants and 24 new hires, compared to 2019 when 481 people applied. Out of that number 15 officers were hired.

Lehman believes the shortage is occurring for several reasons.

"I think right now there are some better paying private sector jobs," he said. "You have some getting out of law enforcement now because of the lack of trust or intense scrutiny that's been put on law enforcement."

While Judd attributes the shortage to a lack of qualified candidates, he points to an article he read a couple of years ago that brought to his attention that only about 2 percent of the population wants to work for a government.

"Then there's a miniscule percentage of that that wants to be in a position of law enforcement where they can be in life threatening danger every day when they go to work." Judd added.

Once you're down to the small amount of the population that is willing to work for law enforcement, Judd added, an even smaller amount of people within that number that will pass a background check.

Potential stress is also an issue, Slate said.

"The number one stressor on average for all of the respondents was that they were more concerned about negative media reports than they were about killing someone in the line of duty or being killed in the line of duty in terms of potential causes of stress," he said.

Once an application is accepted, Lehman said the vetting process can give way a lot of candidates being eliminated.

"We do one of the most invasive background checks there is," Lehman said. "Because you're carrying a gun and badge and we try to vet our people as best we can and some people just don't want to be put through that scrutiny."

The process in Lakeland takes between 60 and 90 days.

At the Sheriff's office Judd said that part of their background check examines work history.

"We had one lady we turned down last week because she hit her supervisor at her last job," Judd said.

The number of applications can also be skewed because if one comes in and doesn't meet the minimum qualifications, Lehman said it is immediately taken out and not considered. He added that most agencies have multiple points within the hiring process where candidates can be eliminated.

"If I had 300 people apply and 150 don't meet minimum qualifications, then they're knocked out," Lehman said. "Then lets say another 50 are contacted by our background investigator and none of them respond, then that's another 50 that get knocked out."

Because of the shortage, experts say that law enforcement agencies are trying different ways to fill open positions including using the police academy as a tool.

"We have a recruiter that goes to the spring and fall sessions of police academies, all the way up in the panhandle, all the way down to Miami and The Keys on recruiting trying to bring folks to Lakeland because there is always a need," Lehman said. "And locally, we don't get as many people applying so, with the vacancies that we've had, we've had to go on those recruiting trips."

Governor Ron DeSantis said during a recent visit to LPD, officials were recently able to fill 13 vacancies by bringing officers to Florida from New York City.

"We're going to have three basic programs that are gonna help Florida capitalize on this moment and make sure we have the strongest core of law enforcement personnel anywhere in the country," DeSantis said at the LPD press conference he held to discuss police recruitment.

DeSantis said officials are offering a $5,000 signing bonus for anyone who is new to law enforcement as a part of how state officials plan to get officers to come to Florida from other states. He said the bonus is also for Florida residents who may be getting into law enforcement for the first time.

"We think that's a way to draw good talent from within our own state to enter the profession in the first place but we also think it's a way to capitalize on some of the folks who are not getting the support they need," DeSantis said. "And to say, 'you know what, you'll be supported in Florida and we're also gonna make sure that we do our best to make it worth your while."

(c)2021 The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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