They want to leave jobs they hate. They yearn for adventure. And, naturally, they say they want to serve.
How bad do they want it? Enough to travel hundreds of miles, diet off scores of pounds and hit the gym in earnest to prepare for this day.
They’re the applicants who’ve showed up for a job fair at DeKalb County’s public safety complex, answering the clarion call (and an Internet message) to join DeKalb’s Finest.
DeKalb County P.D. hasn’t exactly been at its finest in recent history. Cops have been slapped into handcuffs at an alarming rate. (They’re in good company: Both the county CEO and former school superintendent have been arrested on corruption charges.)
Morale among cops has plummeted. Experienced officers have fled. The 900-officer department is short a couple hundred officers.
Police Chief Cedric Alexander, on the job for six months, knows this all too well. Last month, a couple more cops bit the dust. One was busted for allegedly helping a meth ring. Another resigned in disgrace after admitting that he solicited a bribe.
In response, a frustrated chief noted that things must change. The once-proud force had lost its “swagger,” he said.
“The department needs to get its confidence back,” said Alexander, who has doctoral degree in psychology and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy. “It needs it to get its pride back, to get its strength of character back.”
The department is moving to hire 160 new recruits in the next year — and 480 over the next three. To succeed in its turnaround project, it will have to carefully vet each candidate for the attributes Alexander cited.
The odds that any particular applicant has the Right Stuff is literally a one-in-100 proposition. Over a couple months this summer, the department took in 1,626 applications. But after testing and background investigations, only 14 or 15 will end up donning the DeKalb blues. At that rate, if every person in Turner Field put in an application, the force could find its 480 new cops.
So who are these folks, putting themselves on the line at the job fair? There’s an Iraq Army vet studying to be a cop; a former Cleveland cop who looks like a model; a lady who hates her job as a debt collector; an actor who drives limos and works security; a Walgreens’ clerk who loves wrestling.
Lt. Consuela Howard stands in the hallway greeting applicants. “Are you ready to be a DeKalb County police officer?” she asks a baby-faced young man striding into the building.
“I’ve been ready,” Tyler Janousek says with quiet confidence.
The 23-year-old Loganville resident knows it isn’t easy. He failed the physical test to get on another force, so he has transformed his body through improved diet, cardio training and weight lifting, melting a doughy 250 frame into a solid 180 pounds.
“I’ve been in this process for three years,” he says. “I had two jobs just to get by. But my tires were spinning. I wasn’t going anywhere.”
He’s heard the grumbling and the bad reports about DeKalb. But he said he’s ready to be part of the solution. “We’re new blood,” he says. “It’s good to get new people in.”
Jamaal Roche, 26, a New York native, moved to metro Atlanta in search of opportunity. He’s earning an associate’s degree in criminal justice and is excited by the prospect of getting hired in DeKalb. He, too, has heard the whispers about DeKalb and yearns to help turn it around.
“I want to help bring that negativity away,” Roche says. “I hear they have excellent training and are a good department to grow in. I’m here for the long run. It’s time for a career.”
When told about the chief’s comments, the former soldier, who spent a year in Iraq, smiles.
“I got some swagger,” he says.
Cigornai Sapp, 28, worked as a Cleveland police officer and teaches law enforcement at a community college. She was looking for a change of scenery when she saw the DeKalb gig posted on the Internet. Being frugal by nature, she bought a $112.50 round-trip ticket on the Mega Bus and motored from Ohio to Atlanta to scout out the area.
So far, the tall applicant who was a nerdy jock in high school, likes what she has seen. “You’re accepted with open arms here; I like the greenery, I want to bring my mom and grandma here,” she says.
Tera Knight works as a debt collector but says there’s got to be a better way to make a living.
“You have to lie and get cussed out every day,” says Knight, who grew up in a tough Miami neighborhood and has seen the worst life has to offer. “I’ve seen people murdered. I’ve seen people get mistreated. I want to be a protector.”
Knight failed the physical test for Cobb County’s force but said she’s worked on improving her cardio. She said her age — 35 — is an asset. “Thirties are the new twenties,” she says. “When you’re young, you’re dumb. When you hit 30, a light comes on. If I can help someone bad turn into someone good, then that’s what I want to be.”
While still anxious about passing the agility test, Knight has gained a new-found sense of confidence. She got a callback from the College Park police force, where she put in an application.
“I believe I’m gonna be a police officer,” Knight says. “I’m ready.”