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Amid falling morale, a third of 2020 law enforcement academy grads left the job

Published: Jul. 16, 2021 at 6:05 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 16, 2021 at 6:35 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - More law enforcement officers are leaving their jobs because of low morale just as the State Law Enforcement Division is reporting an uptick in violent crime.

South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy Director Jackie Swindler says a third of 2020 academy graduates left their positions. In a typical year, Swindler says that number is closer to just seven percent. However, he is optimistic that the rate is hovering around five percent this year.

The low morale and departures, he says, have been fueled by officers feeling unappreciated by their communities and the feeling that every interaction, even a routine traffic stop, can quickly go from zero to 100.

For Columbia Deputy Police Chief Melron Kelly, policing is a calling, not a job. But it’s not always easy to serve.

“You have to have a heart of service,” Kelly says. “I think anytime you’re dealing with the public and the things that we see as officers it kind of affects you. I think it affects all departments. It really does.”

Swindler says almost every agency has openings.

He cites long hours, unpredictable schedules and a desire for higher pay as reasons officers are leaving. But the big reason he is hearing from officers is people being quicker to snap at officials.

“You seem to see people who have a lack of patience and they get angry very quickly,” he says. “You see that in stores, you see that in road rages. But imagine seeing that in law enforcement, any interaction you have, you don’t know if it will go from cordial to all of a sudden argumentative and combative.”

Swindler says whenever someone gets angry and combative, an officer’s life is at risk.

“You don’t want to expect that every encounter you have could be a violent encounter,” he says.

Both Kelly and Swindler say protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis Police custody in May 2020 triggered an indictment on all police officers in the eyes of some in the public who fear interaction with law enforcement will become deadly.

But they say the Floyd case also highlighted the importance of de-escalation training.

“It made us more conscious of how we were directing our officers and how we were policing communities to make sure we were not over-policing and still going in and enforcing the rules and making sure they had a voice in how we were policing,” Kelly said.

Swindler says he tries to train officers to be aware of their tone and demeanor in hopes of them being able to change any negative police stereotypes.

“We want to be a bright spot in their day,” he said.

Kelly says his department does have enough officers to keep communities safe. But the issue is that low morale and vacancies can lead to departments not being able to do more like community outreach and more frequent check-ins.

Early retirements can also cause a problem through a loss of some institutional knowledge and specific expertise.

Law enforcement agencies most in need of new officers are county detention centers and smaller, more rural departments.

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