Incentives factor into police officer retention

​There are only so many dogs and new cars you can promise.

Because of that, police departments must get creative to recruit and retain officers, said Larry McNeil, employee safety and law enforcement liaison for the S.C. Department of Social Services.

“I understand what it’s like to have a 23-year-old decide he wants to leave after six months because someone offered him a new car and a dog,” said McNeil, emphasizing that departments must also communicate the realities of police work to new hires so that new officers don’t come in with the wrong expectations. McNeil is the former police chief of Bennettsville. He joined DSS last fall after serving 40 years in law enforcement.

“Some believe that what you see on TV is what you’re going to do,” he added. “One of the most important things that we can do is sit down and talk with these ladies and gentlemen and explain exactly what this job entails.”

McNeil said that means telling new hires that sometimes, “the most exciting thing you’ll do today may be is to get somebody’s dog that’s stuck under a house. … It’s not all limelight. You don’t put on a vest and a gun down to your hip and run around town all day shooting at people and getting the bad guys. That’s not what we do. We make a safe environment for people to live in.”

McNeil was part of a three-person panel of law enforcement officials who shared practical advice at the Municipal Association’s Hometown Legislative Action Day. The former Bennettsville chief said that buying a new police car can be more than just a lure for new hires. It can make communities safer by raising the visibility of the police department, given that officers may be inclined to drive their vehicles more.

While McNeil spoke about the limitations of attracting officers with material incentives, all three said it’s helpful to remember that law enforcement officers — like workers across all sectors — care about tangible job benefits.

For officers, a newer automobile, a police dog or a seemingly insignificant difference in salaries can be central factors in whether a police officer stays or goes.

“It’s not uncommon for new police officers, 21 or 22 years old, fresh out of college to leave an agency for a raise of $500 or a take-home car or better equipment, and that’s something that we really haven’t seen in the history of policing,” said Ryan Alphin, executive director of the S.C. Law Enforcement Officers’ Association and the S.C. Police Chiefs Association.

In particular, he said millennials — those born in the early 1980s through the late 90s — have been quick to leave a policing job for one that promises slightly better pay or benefits. Previous generations, he said, were more tied to the community they worked for.

“It’s not like that anymore,” said Alphin.

But both millennials and non-millennials are more likely to stay put if their police department keeps them well trained. Appreciation helps, too.

“If you tell the officer you appreciate them and that they are doing a service that benefits the community, that will go a long way,” said Jackie Swindler, director of the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy, who spent 40 years in law enforcement, most recently as the City of Newberry police chief.

“I hear it all too often that officers feel like they’re constantly being criticized about where they work and because of who they interact with.”

While panel members suggested ways to treat and attract officers, they also urged department leaders to be considerate of police departments in other cities. Swindler mentioned a police agency that recently offered officers a $2,000 signing bonus if they would leave their current police department and a $1,000 bonus to the officer responsible for recruiting them. Departments are even eying fresh graduates of the academy who were sent by other departments.

“Someone said, ‘Can I stand off stage at the graduation line at the academy and recruit?’” recalled Swindler. “I said that would not be very nice.”

Besides, doing so brings an extra expense. If an officer leaves for another agency within one year, the original department can recoup 100 percent of the training costs from the officer’s new employer. If the officer departs within two years, the original department can recoup 50 percent of the training costs.

“It is very competitive,” said Swindler.