WILMINGTON — It’s a sentiment that transcends careers and professions and even extends to our local government and police — good help is hard to find.
The Wilmington Police Department (WPD) has been dealing with the issue for years. Recruiting new officers (and retaining them) has proven to be a Sisyphean task, not only for WPD but for agencies across the country, especially when new recruits use departments to get initial training only to leave for a new agency or department (or a career in private security or contracting).
It takes anywhere from three to six months for the Wilmington Police Department to hire a new officer. That lengthy process, which consists of sending recruits to Basic Law Enforcement Training, onboarding, background checking, field training, and more, is also expensive.
That’s why it is particularly damaging when new officers leave the force for another agency or career, Deputy Chief for WPD Donny Williams said.
It’s no secret race relations between the police and the public have been strained over the past few years across the country. For some, the number of black officers compared to white officers plays a role in some of the tension — but for Williams, race is only a secondary factor when it comes to hiring.
The Wilmington Police Department employs hundreds of law enforcement officers, 168 are uniformed officers (not detectives or other types of police officers) — of that number, 18 are African American, Williams said.
Diversity on the Wilmington Police force has been an ongoing conversation for many years with Chief Ralph Evangelous addressing the topic before City Council on multiple occasions. Williams acknowledged that some younger African American officers might feel some racial tension, noting he himself might have felt it as a rookie, but added that as the most senior black WPD employee he no longer felt that way. He also added that there are ‘HR issues’ that occur in any large organization, saying that while WPD does its best to address those issue they are bound to occur for any major employer.
But for Williams, the senior minority officer at WPD, hiring the right person for the job is more important than the color of their skin.
“You always want to be reflective of what your community is, but I am going to say this when it comes to hiring and me being the senior minority office, just because of a person’s skin color I am not willing to hire them unless they meet that important ‘Q’ — qualify,” he said.
That ‘Q’ is what it all comes down to for Williams and the WPD; the color of someone’s skin does not make them any more or less qualified to be a police officer.
“In this day and age, it is very important that we have officers that are honest, have integrity, compassion. Being in this job for 27 years I have worked with black officers that possess those characteristics. I have worked with white officers that have possessed those characteristics. I have worked with black officers that didn’t possess those characteristics and that is why they are no longer here, and the same thing with some white officers,” he said.
Of course, WPD does want to have a diverse range of officers, both uniformed and not, but for Williams, sacrificing for the sake of diversity is not something he is willing to do.
“You want to be reflective of what your demographics of your community are, but I am not willing to do it to sacrifice the quality of the personnel that we have. Bottom line, you put somebody out there that is not capable they are going to get themselves hurt, they’re going to hurt a citizen, or into some hot water that you can’t get out of,” Williams said.
Williams admitted there have been about 6 black officers in the past 18 months to leave the department for a variety of reasons, from retirement to changes in careers — but, again, it’s not just black officers leaving, he said.
The Wilmington Police Department is a Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) accredited agency which does require certain amounts of diversity and efforts to recruit diverse officers. When an agency’s rank and file doesn’t represent the local demographics, it might be required to detail plans to improve the representation or risk losing accreditation.
The CALEA accreditation is one of WPD’s frequently touted accomplishments, but Williams again pointed out that it is a voluntary program and regardless, WPD does what it can to recruit a diverse officer pool.
Local doesn’t necessarily mean better
Police officers are entrusted to uphold the law, but in a department like WPD, community policing is more than just responding to crime scenes and accidents.
For some of the cities, high-crime neighborhoods having officers who grew up in these areas can prove to be invaluable, but the number of officers WPD employs that have come from the inner city are few.
“There’s probably only a handful or maybe two handfuls of officers that have actually come from the inner city, but I am going to say this, that can be overcome. One of our most effective officers that we have is a lieutenant. He is not from Wilmington, he came here and he earned his reputation,” Williams said.
So when it comes to representation of the city, it can make things easier hiring those who might have grown up here, but it is not a requirement to be an effective police officer.
There are steps that WPD is taking to hire a more diverse workforce, he said. Recruiting events at locations that might have a move diverse candidate pool is one of them.
In 2018 WPD recruiters hit about five events to attract new candidates — so far this year recruiters have already been to six — and more are planned including events at Camp LeJune, Fayetteville State University (a historically black college and university or ‘HBCU’), veterans job fairs, and CFCC events.
“But going back to the bigger picture, taking race out of it. Law enforcement nationwide is in a crisis as far as recruiting and retention. It’s not just Wilmington, it’s agencies small, medium, and large,” he said.
While pay and benefits typically play a role in deciding on a career, there are other factors to think about before joining any law enforcement role. From the inherent safety concerns, odd hours, to public scrutiny, attracting new officers is a challenge.
“It’s just people just don’t want to become police officers anymore. You’re competing with tech companies. Yeah. We’re competing with post-Ferguson, some folks are like, why do I want to subject myself the oldest scrutiny?”
Williams, who has been on the job for nearly three decades said for himself becoming a police officer was pretty much always part of his plan.
“I’ve been at it 27 years now and when I came into the department, I came in very unique. I came in as a part-time, summer youth worker. I spent two years in the cadet program and I became a sworn officer, so I feel that this was my destiny, there was nothing that was going to change my mind and stop me from doing this — but then again, I wasn’t facing Furguson,” Williams said, referring to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. in 2014, which spawned days of protests and acts of civil disorder.
The City of Wilmington’s leadership has done what it can to help attract the most qualified talent for the police offering a range of benefits and new additions, Williams said.
“The city has tired, they’ve given us take-home cars as a recruiting incentive to make us competitive with other agencies. Some of our other benefits, we’re in the process of opening his new multimillion-dollar training facility now that we’re hoping that that would be an incentive for people to come here and say, Wow, look, I can get the best-trained officer in southeastern North Carolina,” Williams said.
But of course, providing a high level of training does come with downsides, he said. While some officers might see ongoing training as an incentive to stay with WPD, new recruits might take advantage of that training and simply use Wilmington as a ‘stepping stone.’
“You’re always going to be faced with that you will have some officers that use this as a stepping stone because they really want to be on a federal level. And they will come into a local agency to get the training and an advance on. We’ve been dealing with this for 20-some years since I’ve been here, people come and go,” he said.
As the city continues to grow Williams said he along with WPD are always looking for new candidates that possess what it takes to be an officer — for Williams, that is honesty and integrity.
There are of course some qualifications that are required before applying to become a police officer, no felonies, no major drug use, a clean driving history, but there is also something else Williams looks for, passion.
“Just that passion in your heart that you want to serve people. And it’s hard to gauge that but that’s what I like, that passion that you are not just this [officer] that goes and hangs out in a patrol car … that’s what you came on this job for, to help people,” Williams said.
Finally, Williams said it is important for officers to help maintain public confidence in the system.
“The final part of that mission statement is just so important to me, is to maintain public safety and confidence in the public loses confidence in you. It’s not good for the police department, the public always has to have that confidence in their police department, you’re not going to get 100%, but if the majority of the citizens lose confidence, and you have some issues, right, so those are some of the things that I look for in the ideal police officer,” he concluded.
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