Detective Lesa Robinson needs a tissue and a few seconds to compose herself.
She is in the middle of an exhibit hall at the Georgia International Convention Center and someone has asked her what it was like being a female officer patrolling the busy streets of DeKalb County. The memory of her first day riding alone gets her emotional, but telling the story of the first time she called for backup brings tears.
“The moment I asked for help, they all came,” she tells a group of women who have crowded around to hear her story and possibly follow in her footsteps. “If I had to do it all over again and choose professions all over again, I would choose DeKalb Police.”
A passionate and articulate recruiter, Robinson is the face of an agency looking to staff up its ranks quickly. The DeKalb County Police Department is looking to hire 155 officers this year, and it is not alone among local police agencies in search of dozens if not hundreds of new employees.
DeKalb and many others set up tables and unpacked freebies in hopes of attracting candidates during Congressman David Scott’s 15th Annual Career Fair on Friday.
DeKalb is among the state’s largest and busiest police forces, meaning it can offer more career opportunities and resources to employees. But that comes with the pressure of working inside an agency that patrols an area with the state’s largest number of homicides and a murder rate second only to the city of Atlanta.
All of DeKalb’s public safety agencies are in need of new employees. The Fire Rescue Department is seeing veterans retire at a rapid pace and within each recruitment class hired there are a handful of students that don’t make it to graduation. The Emergency 911 call center, the state’s busiest, also has rapid turnover and is financially hindered by caps on the taxes used to fund its operations.
Still, the needs within the county’s police department are the top priority. And it is the same story for other law enforcement agencies across the region.
Also attending Scott’s job fair were representatives from police departments in Atlanta, Gwinnett County, Clayton County, Powder Springs, and Savannah. Atlanta Police Department says its goal is to hire 200 officers this year.
DeKalb will have to compete with all of these agencies to meet its aggressive goals of building up an agency that is stretched too thin. A December news release said that the number of police officers working in DeKalb had declined from 994 to 710 since 2012, a 28 percent drop.
It has been tough everywhere to hire officers in the years after protests in Ferguson, Mo., shined a light on issues in policing and the treatment of minorities. The economy is robust, and top applicants are taking less risky, higher paying jobs, the county’s new deputy chief operating officer of public safety, Joseph “Jack” Lumpkin, said.
“People who have the knowledge, skills and abilities to be police officers have a wide variety of other opportunities,” Lumpkin said. “And in Georgia the compensation and benefits are significantly different than in some of the northern states or in states where the unions are representing police. So, it’s the competition factor and how police are actually viewed by the community.”
The DeKalb Board of Commissioners signed off on Thurmond’s proposal to set aside $7.9 million to pay the 155 new officers plus $500,000 to recruit them. Scouts are not only attending local events, they have also hit the road to places like Jacksonville, Fla., earlier this month and Savannah State University’s career fair this week.
The agency is trying to do things differently, like a forum featuring female officers like Robinson that resulted in a packed room. In addition to social media and advertising, the agency is strengthening its connections to churches in hopes of creating new pipelines for talent.
Detective Keith Lee stopped people as they walked past him in the convention hall, asking them if they ever thought about a career in law enforcement. If they said they were too old or unqualified, he gave them a flyer anyway. He told them they may know a family member or friend who fit the bill.
DeKalb Police didn’t have to go looking for Tonika Arila, she was looking for them. Her husband, Karl, currently works overnights at a factory where the threat of injury and low pay has soured him on the work. He is trained in martial arts, has hunting skills and enjoys working out. Policing is for him, Tonika said, and she was eager to sign his name on a list of people wanting more information while he chatted with a recruiter.
“I’m going to give it a go,” he said after a long conversation with Detective Maqsood Syed, another recruiter.
Finding enough qualified applicants to fill these open positions is only part of the battle. Keeping them on the force, especially after their initial contract ends and they become free agents, is a tougher. Plus there are retirements and burnouts to contend with, plus all the other reasons why people change careers.
Lumpkin wouldn’t provide the latest numbers because he said it could affect the safety of officers on the street, but he said the agency has been losing officers each year at a rate well above the 5-percent industry standard for attrition.
There are other police departments near DeKalb with a lower call volumes and stress levels yet higher pay. During the economic downturn, DeKalb police and firefighters also were required to pay more toward their pension and other benefits which further reduced the size of their checks.
Officers recently received a three-percent pay raise that boosted the starting salary for recruits with high school diplomas from $38,151 annually to $39,295. Still, Cobb County and Atlanta police start new officers above $40,000.
Although the DeKalb County Fire Rescue Department’s staffing issues aren’t as dire, compensation and attrition has become an issue in that agency too. Lumpkin said departments are always changing their pay scales so it’s futile to shoot for the top of the list, but DeKalb cannot linger at the bottom.
“We have the tougher job, so our salaries, compensation and benefits must be competitive if not the best,” Lumpkin said. “And I hear from the CEO and the Board of Commissioners a willingness to go wherever they need to go to have the caliber of service that the citizens have a right to expect.”