Chief Pleads With Council For Help
MARY ANN ANDERSON
Recruiting and retaining officers is a nationwide problem that haunts law enforcement agencies every day and the Hazlehurst Police Department is no exception. It’s such an issue in the community that in a called meeting of the Hazlehurst City Council March 21, Ward 2 Councilman John Bloodworth, who is the liaison between the council and HPD, called the shortage of officers a “very critical, dire situation.”
Bloodworth and Police Chief Ken Williams both stated that in Georgia alone, the shortage of officers reaches some 7,000 vacancies, particularly in Atlanta. Those figures came directly from Georgia Police Officer Standards and Training Council.
Bloodworth also noted that in Hazlehurst, officers often leave for a variety of reasons including to make more money, have a better position or work with a K-9 unit, as HPD no longer has one. He also pointed out the challenges officers are faced with in today’s society, saying especially that the public has become “more combative” and “more challenging” because of a “disconnect in communication” between law enforcement agencies and the citizens.
Williams agreed, saying, “This profession, public safety, has been demonized in the media with everything that’s going on. Officers have made mistakes, and it has cost everybody else.”
Bloodworth added, “The old law enforcement profession has become like the old barbershop profession. They are a dying breed.”
One of the most disheartening facts that arose in the meeting is the utter lack of local officers in the HPD.
“We have four officers to cover the city,” Bloodworth said. “And we have nobody wanting to come in.”
That’s four officers for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, noted Captain James Mock, who has been with the HPD several years. He said that he and Williams both work shifts because of the shortage of patrol officers, stating, “The four we have now are getting worn out and stressed because they don’t see any end in sight.”
Mock also said that it’s a “dangerous situation” with so few officers, and that he and Williams struggle with the shortage every day, calling it gut-wrenching and that it “sits heavy on our hearts.”
“We are really taking this personally,” Mock said. “We’re old school. We’re public servants … if the locals ever get to see the city through the windshield of a patrol car, just one good shift, it would shock you what goes on and what we see and what we deal with.”
Williams said his department has reached out to regional police academies, technical schools and other resources for ideal candidates, but that few are even signing up to go to training. He added that the numbers are down at the original police academy in Tifton, and that of the candidates that apply, he has been told that the quality is not as high as it used to be.
Williams also intoned, “One of the challenges now is that we’re all looking at the same [good] candidates, basically we’re all fishing in the same pond, and looking at the same people who are coming out [of the schools] to meet the demand of the officers. It’s basically who has the best incentives.”
The chief also noted that officers are looking at what they’re going to make an hour and not other incentives such as retirement or job security. Currently HPD officers are making $18-22 per hour, but he is proposing upping the starting pay to $21-25 per hour.
With Ward 2 Councilman John Ramay, who attended the meeting by telephone, stating that the city needs further studies into drawing quality officers to the force, Bloodworth added that the City is “looking for someone who knows how to treat the citizens, get out and understand to not push their weight and power on people, and don’t talk down to folks.”
Noting the upcoming 2023-24 budget that will begin on July 1, Mayor Bayne Stone summed up the meeting, saying, “It’s a complicated situation that’s not easily solved … let’s begin to look and work as hard as we can.”
Hazlehurst has to offer competitive salaries and benefits. Truth is the crime and civic need for local law enforcement is as great here as in larger GA municipities. You don’t use needed funds to study, you use it to increase salary to entice the best officers that Chief Williams is interested in bringing to Hazlehurst. We cannot have what we are not willing to pay and provide.