LUMBERTON — During a time when protesters across the nation are calling for the defunding of police departments, some local law enforcement agencies are working hard to fill a need for officers.
The Robeson County Sheriff’s Office recently lost three deputies to another agency, and will lose more in the future, Sheriff Burnis Wilkins said. There are nine vacancies at the Robeson County Detention Center.
The Sheriff’s Office also is losing a deputy and a detective because of frustration with the negative perception of police officers across the nation, he said. The deputy has worked 12 years at the Sheriff’s Office and the detective five years.
The demand for deputies to serve county residents continues to rise, Wilkins said. The Sheriff’s Office fields an average of 4,800 calls each month.
“I need more deputies in the county,” Wilkins said.
Deputies are assigned zones in the county. When a deputy leaves the zone to perform another duty or answer another call, the zone is left open.
To better serve the county, he would like about double the number of deputies on shifts, Wilkins said. But, budget constraints will not allow him to do so.
The Pembroke Police Department also is working to fill two positions: police officer and school resource officer. Unfortunately, there has been little interest, Chief Ed Locklear said.
“We’ve only had maybe four applications for these two positions,” he said.
The department has been able to retain its 14 police officers, even after tensions rose during a June 26 protest in town, he said.
Three officer positions are open at the Lumberton Police Department, Chief Mike McNeill said.
“We do compete,” said McNeill of recruitment.
Incentives such as paying for education or allowing officers to drive police cars home are ways the department attempts to draw in more officers, he said.
Law enforcement agencies across the nation also are struggling to fill their ranks.
Police departments are seeing reductions in staffing, fewer applicants and more officers leaving before retirement age, according to the Police Executive Research Forum. Significant numbers of personnel are reaching retirement ages.
In a survey conducted by PERF, 41% of 412 respondents from police departments across 45 states, Washington D.C. and Canada reported an increased shortage of full-time sworn personnel in 2019 when compared to 2014.
The number of students in Basic Law Enforcement Training at Robeson Community College also has decreased.
Chief Locklear, who teaches BLET courses at the college, said the program hasn’t had enough students enrolled to offer night classes for the past two years.
But, he is hopeful numbers will remain steady, and the desire to serve the public will keep students coming back.
Even as police scrutiny across the nation rises, Locklear tells students to “keep moving forward.”
Sheriff Wilkins doesn’t agree with the idea of defunding police.
“It’s easy to sit behind a desk and talk about defunding the police,” Wilkins said. “… While I appreciate the opinions and recommendations of anyone, I don’t see it as appropriate for someone who has never acted in a law enforcement role for an extended period of time to try and force new policies and procedures on the dedicated men and women of law enforcement.”
Police officers are trained to take on the roles of social workers and medical personnel, among others, when responding to emergency calls.
“We got to react. We got to protect and serve. That’s what we do,” Chief McNeill said.
Officers don’t have time to call social workers in an emergency situation, they must rely on training, McNeill said.
“It’s not as simple as it is on a TV crime show. Many officers suffer from not seeking assistance, but many are quick to ridicule them for their actions or lack of action,” Wilkins said. “It’s a no-win situation as we can’t satisfy everyone.”
But, the departments have taken steps to better protect the public. One step is reviewing use-of-force policies.
The Sheriff’s Office also is looking into the purchase of 75 body cameras for deputies, at a cost of $116,000.
Cameras will be worn by every uniformed deputy, he said.
The office recently spent $8,000 on a polygraph test machine to screen applicants for positions of detention officers and deputies.
The Pembroke and Lumberton police departments also are considering the purchase of body cameras.
“We’re from the human population. We make mistakes. We do some things wrong,” McNeill said.
But, having body cameras would help document events and provide extra protection for officers and members of the public, he said.
“If you want to be part of a new solution, come join the ranks of law enforcement, as I have many vacancies, and make a difference in your communities,” Wilkins said.
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