Upstate police chiefs and sheriffs said they now struggle to fill open jobs and, in some cases, job postings go unanswered for months.
The statewide shortage of police in South Carolina led departments to look for new solutions to recruit and retain veteran police while trying to avoid problem officers who bounce from department to department because of disputes over pay, conflicts with supervisors, or trouble with internal affairs investigations.
“Every agency in the state is feeling the effects of it, from the smallest agency all the way up to say the highway patrol or even SLED, every agency is feeling the effects of hiring and retaining good officers,” said Major Florence McCants at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy where all of the state’s officers are certified.
In Pacolet, a town of 2,500, Chief Raymond Webb heads a department of 7 full-time officers. That means one officer works each shift. Webb said he was proud of all the officers who serve the department now and there were no problems officers on staff.
Webb will have to fight to keep that staff together. His department, like most in the Upstate, struggles to fill vacancies when officers leave.
“I had an ad in the newspaper, I put one on our website for i think it was three months. I had about three hits on it. People just aren’t applying for it,” Webb said.
What happens when nobody applies?
“You just have to do without,” Webb said.
In Williamston, Chief Tony Taylor had a similar problem. He’s had 80% of his staff turnover in the last three years. The department has two current openings.
Taylor said he got plenty of applications but there is a problem with the people who applied.
“Usually the applicants that you get in are what we call problems,” Taylor said.
Those “problems” include officers who bounced around to multiple agencies. Some of them are looking for an increase in pay. Taylor said that could be as small as a 25 cents an hour.
Other officers had problems with one or more previous departments, were allowed to resign, and easily found new jobs with other agencies desperate for new hires.
At the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy, where all new officers are certified, they call those officers “Gypsy Cops”.
“A gypsy cop! That’s been termed an officer that will jump from agency to agency .They may have 10 agencies under their belt within a 5 year period,” said Major Florence McCants of the Criminal Justice Academy.
7News tracked the case of one officer who fits the “gypsy cop” profile after a shooting on the campus of Spartanburg Methodist College.
Campus police shot a man suspected of breaking into cars after they said he tried to run them down.
Officer Justin Yarbrough was among the officers who responded but he did not open fire. Spartanburg Methodist Police is the 9th agency that Yarbrough has worked for and his third agency in 2015. Some prior jobs only lasted a few months.
Yarbrough started with Union Police and left that job to work with the Union County Sheriff. The current sheriff, David Taylor, did not work with Yarbrough but said that the former deputy has since applied to return to the agency. Sheriff Taylor said he did not rehire him because of the officer’s history of moving between agencies.
From Union County, Yarbrough went to Clinton Police, Laurens Police, Cherokee County Sheriff, Jonesville Police, Laurens County Sheriff and Pacolet Police.
The Laurens County job began in October 2013. In February of 2015 documents filed with the Criminal Justice Academy showed Yarbrough resigned from that job “during investigation of alcohol use.”
Deputies said they could “smell an odor of alcohol” while Yarbrough was responding to a call. The reports provided by the Sheriff’s office show deputies believed Yarbrough’s driving ability was “compromised” and said they discovered a half-empty bottle of rye whiskey and a baggie of assorted pills in his patrol cruiser.
According to state records, Yarbrough said “I’m not taking no drug test, I guess I’ll resign”.
That’s when he left Laurens County to spend 7 weeks working for the Pacolet police.
“You have some agencies that take the approach, we need warm bodies, so they will hire that individual,” said Taylor who said his office is more selective in new hires.
“They’re going to get hired somewhere,” he said.
“That’s happened,” said Webb, “It happens every day. It’s happened here. It happens everywhere.”
The problem starts at the justice academy.
Maj. McCants said most new recruits don’t last long. First time officers are required to pass a 12-week certification course. Out of 70 in a typical class, only about 50 would make it to graduation.
Of those who graduate, McCants said only about half will stay in law enforcement more than a year.
That means the shortage of officers becomes a serious issue for agencies of every size.
“Every agency in the state is feeling the effects of it, from the smallest agency all the way up to say the highway patrol or even SLED. Every agency is feeling the effects of hiring and retaining good officers,” McCants said.
Officers offer different solutions for the shortage.
Taylor said the public perception of police has been damaged by media criticism and focus on the few officers who get into trouble. That, he said, discouraged some people for seeking it as a career.
He also said changes to the state retirement system made it more difficult for smaller agencies like his to recruit veteran officers who had served in larger agencies.
Webb said people, in general, seem to have less interest in community service and aren’t willing to pay dues as a police officer.
Police Chiefs and Sheriffs across the entire Upstate agreed that police pay is a factor. Officer salaries are relatively low compared to other high skilled dangerous jobs and the lure of higher pay is a major factor in officers hopping from one job to another.
7 News compiled a list of starting salaries for police at agencies across the region.
|AGENCY||UNCERTIFIED||CERTIFIED||STARTING PAY MEETS MEDIAN HOUSEHOLD INCOME?||MEDIAN HOUSEHOLD INCOME|
|Abbeville Co. SO||$30,000.00||BELOW||$35,409.00|
|Anderson Co. SO||$31,000.00||$31,310.00||BELOW||$41,822.00|
|Calhoun Falls PD||$27,500.00||$27,500.00||ABOVE||$27,333.00|
|Cherokee Co. SO||$31,470.00||$31,470.00||BELOW||$34,766.00|
|Clemson University PD||$31,000.00||$32,260.00||BELOW||$33,632.00|
|Fountain Inn PD||$28,065.00||$29,300.00||BELOW||$46,989.00|
|Furman University DPS||$33,000.00||BELOW||$41,147.00|
|Greenville Co. SO||$33,633.60||$34,985.60||BELOW||$49,968.00|
|Greenwood Co. SO||$30,731.00||BELOW||$36,045.00|
|Honea Path PD||$27,300.00||ABOVE||$24,510.00|
|Lander University DPS||$33,700.00||ABOVE||$24,760.00|
|Laurens Co. SO||$29,054.00||$29,054.00||BELOW||$38,300.00|
|Oconee Co. SO||$29,120.00||$29,120.00||BELOW||$41,197.00|
|Pickens Co. SO||$32,336.00||$33,848.00||BELOW||$41,501.00|
|Spartanburg Co. SO||$29,474.00||BELOW||$43,555.00|
|Travelers Rest PD||$28,626.00||BELOW||$51,066.00|
|Union Co. SO||$32,000.00||$34,558.00||BELOW||$35,221.00|
|Ware Shoals PD||$27,000.00||ABOVE||$24,076.00|
|West Pelzer PD||$32,000.00||ABOVE||$26,818.00|