CONWAY, S.C. (WBTW) — Attracting new talent to South Carolina police departments is getting more difficult, according to state leaders.

“You do not have any other opportunity to make an instant impact in the lives of people to help them, than you do with what we do,” said Dale Long, the chief of the Conway Police Department.

Long is just one of many police chiefs across South Carolina trying to figure out how to not only lure more people into law enforcement, but keep them on the force.

“Sometimes it’s hostile and extremely dangerous, but you feel like this is a necessary thing that needs to be done in our community,” he said.

The City of Conway, according to Long, has more officers than it ever has. When its police department opens up its hiring process for applications, though, it only fetches about 15 on average.

He credits that to the size and complexity of surrounding agencies, but also hesitancy in answering a “calling.” He admits the job isn’t easy and isn’t for everyone, but being able to serve their fellow neighbors in their hardest moments certainly outweighs that.

Horry County Police Department Chief Joseph Hill said his department has seen a slight dip in the number of people applying, too.

He said that while the department would typically get at least 100 applications, it’s more like 65. Out of a hundred, he said there’s probably five qualified applications who would complete the entire process and be offered a job. Now, that’s down to two or three.

Both Long and Hill said it’s of the utmost importance to have the right people wearing the badge, rather than filling vacancies for the sake of it.

Why the badge?

On a hot June morning outside J. Reuben Long Detention Center, a young group of men and women are covered in sweat after finishing a three-mile run.

Some credited family members who’ve served as being their motivation to join a force, while others said it was a calling.

The South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy has graduated 2,794 officers from its basic law enforcement program since 2018, as of June, and another 407 from its special basic program over the same period. Special basic graduates have law enforcement experience outside of South Carolina — a candidate group that academy leaders said is gaining traction.

More than 300 fewer graduates made it through the academy in 2020 than 2019 due to a seven-week COVID-19 shutdown and smaller class sizes during the height of the pandemic.

South Carolina Justice Academy Director Jackie Swindler said recruitment, training and retention has become a hot topic among the state’s leading chiefs — and so has the rate new officers that have left the force.

Swindler said that within five years, 53% of officers have left the profession.

“We started talking to people and telling agencies to try to keep those officers,” he said. “So I do that. Every class I speak to (I say) ‘Please stay in this. Don’t let just one day define you and quit.'”

About a third of officers have left the profession during COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter protests, according to Swindler.

“I tell you, historically, it had been around 8% that first year and then last year 33%,” he said. “So I went, ‘Oh wow. That’s sad. That’s terrible.'”

Swindler not only points to COVID-19 and protests as reasons why officers are leaving, but furthermore the lifestyle, schedules, career changes, burnout and public opinion of law enforcement.

The issue has caused local, regional and state law enforcement leaders to re-think how they’re appealing to prospective employees – and where. They’re finding one key to staying on people’s radar is starting the recruiting process young.

“I believe you have to start recruiting people when they’re maybe even in middle school, now in high school and finding the kind of young people that you’re interested in, and then mentoring them,” he said.

Another fruitful recruitment tactic according to Swindler — recruiting out of state.

“Historically people have retired from other states and want to come to South Carolina,” he said. “Now we’re seeing people applying here from other states who have been working six, eight, 10, 12 years. They’re not waiting to retire. They’re leaving those places.”

The solution that’s working

The South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy has made strides to shorten the gap between getting hired and getting to the academy — a process that once, local chiefs claim, could take several months.

Bridging that gap is why two years ago, the state decided to film instructional training in Columbia for local departments to use during four weeks of “pre-academy” training. That training, Swindler said, includes physical training and benchmark tests.

Once the four weeks is completed at home and all tests are passed, recruits take a cumulative and physical test that allows admittance into a final eight weeks of training at the state criminal justice academy.

Swindler said that program reduced the wait from 106 days to less than 14.

Because of COVID-19, though, Swindler said the wait is back up to four weeks, but improving. A new class enters the academy every two weeks and class sizes have more than doubled to 55 recruits.

Swindler said that the graduation rate increasing by 20% shows that the program is working.

Long agrees.

“Once they instituted this four week pre-academy, it was an absolutely genius idea to push this back to the departments because the backlog came down,” Long said. “We literally had people that were testing on Wednesday and were having to report to the academy that Sunday to start training.”

Long has seen success in the caliber of candidates he’s sending to the academy thanks to those four weeks of at-home training. Getting to know prospective officers, he said, lays the foundation for a comfortable mutual relationship with not only the job at hand, but fellow officers, leaders and departments.

“We’re testing them and we’re giving them the material and we’re hearing their discussions,” he said. “We’re getting a better sense that, ‘OK, this is a good applicant.’ They have very good common sense. They have good analytical thinking. Beforehand, we were sending them to the academy. They were doing training two hours away. We hoped they were responding well. If they passed and came back to us, sometimes we were finding that later, that when put into difficult situations having to make all the smart decisions, it wasn’t as easy as they thought it was going to be. We can find that out on the front end.”

Getting officers into community

Right now, several local agencies across the Grand Strand and Pee Dee are either waiting for recruits to get assigned a spot in the academy or graduate from it.

“When they do come out and they get on the road and they’re working together, it’s like ‘I already know these folks!’ and they’re already they’re building levels of trust,” Long said. “This worked out really good that they actually started developing the bonds and the relationships that when they start working together out in the field, you can just sense that it’s better.”

Long is excited to see how the process continues to perform for not only the Conway Police Department, but agencies statewide.

“They call us (and) we go to them,” he said. “We’re able to to try to make an impact on the community level – right in people’s houses, in their neighborhoods – almost instantly – with whatever problem they have. And because you have that ability, I think that’s one of the greatest professions there is.”