Last week IPR News Radio reported that police in Michigan are responding to many more incidents today than a decade ago, and they’re doing it with fewer officers. Part of the problem is not as many people want to be police officers these days, and it’s especially hard to hire new officers in northern Michigan.
In 2010, Grand Traverse County received 184 applications for road patrol jobs. Six years later, a similar posting only drew 30 applicants.
Undersheriff Nate Alger with the Grand Traverse Sheriff's Office says it’s harder to find good cops in such a small pool of applicants. Plus, it's taking twice as long to fill vacant positions now.
Alger says part of the problem is fewer people want to be cops.
"I think that the attractiveness of law enforcement to young people today," Alger says, "is not to the degree that is was many years ago."
Stress on the job
Part of that reason is the job is stressful, Alger says.
"It gets stressful like any job," agrees Deputy Matt Holliday.
He and Deputy Eric Meiers are on a ten hour road patrol shift in early September. They're responding to a call about potential domestic violence. A neighbor called 911 because of yelling heard from next door.
Holliday and Meiers have both been on the job for three years and experience the heavy workload firsthand. Right now the sheriff's office is down five deputies, while two vacant positions sit unfilled and three new hires finish training.
Meiers and Holliday say they’re busy going from one 911 call to the next with few breaks to do other police work like investigating crimes.
Meiers hesitates to say the job is stressful.
"I don’t like saying high stress," he says. "I try not to be stressed when I go to a call. I don’t know if other guys are like this, [but] every single call I go to I’m like I’m ready for somebody to fight me, and I think that keeps me, I don’t know, vigilant."
Pay and benefits
Another reason – besides the stress of the job – becoming a cop is less popular than in the past is the pay and benefits.
"You definitely do not get in this job for money and retirements right now," says Deputy Holliday.
Grand Traverse County's troubled financial situation plays a role in that. As the county's retirement debt has built up, employees' retirement benefits have been cut.
"A potential candidate coming into Grand Traverse County may do some research into the situation economically in Grand Traverse County," says Undersheriff Alger, "and they may not want to be part of that candidate pool, knowing that their wages are going to be not as high as other law enforcement agencies, and they might take a hit on their benefit packages as well."
A review of road patrol contracts at some other local law enforcement agencies shows that a number of contracts are better than Grand Traverse County’s, particularly in Leelanau County and Traverse City. Both agencies offer a pension that is fully paid for by the county or city, whereas Grand Traverse County has a defined contribution plan where employees contribute six percent.
Alger says they've had several officers leave to work for the Traverse City Police Department.
Alger says they lose about seven percent of their staff each year – roughly five people – for various reasons including transferring for better pay. He says it's felt like they've been losing even more lately.
Alger says a number of his officers have second jobs.
"I don’t know of many officers that don’t have at least some secondary source of income because they need to make ends meet at home," he says.
Terry Jungel, the Executive Director and CEO of the Michigan Sheriff’s Association, says though law enforcement agencies statewide are struggling to find qualified applicants for road patrol vacancies, the issue is exacerbated in northern Michigan.
"What’s happening is they’re migrating to where the better wages are," says Jungel, "and that’s not upper Michigan or the U.P. in Michigan. It’s the major cities downstate."
Law enforcement officials say a growing negative public perception of officers is also driving people to be less interested in being a cop.
"It’s a bad environment we’re in right now in terms of perception of law enforcement," says Jungel.
"I think that the recent negative attention to law enforcement is driving potential college graduates to go away from law enforcement," says Undersheriff Alger, "and do something different where they can make more money and not have the negative attention drawn to them."
This increased negative perception of cops is partially being driven by episodes that have gone national – like police officers fatally shooting black men or perceived instances of excessive force. Grand Traverse County has had its own recent incidents as well. Earlier this year, an officer attacked a bartender and another was caught sexting a teenage girl.
Deputy Meiers says there are always those people who just don't like cops.
"I’ve gone to calls before where I’m trying to help people or just ask questions," he says, "and they hate the fact that I’m – they don’t know me – they just hate the uniform, and they want nothing to do with it, and they’ll call you all kinds of names."
But Meiers says that’s not the majority of people in Grand Traverse County.
"For the most part I think they appreciate us and support us," says Meiers.
Deputy Holliday agrees. He grew up in Lansing and came north for the job.
"When I moved up here," he says, "and I did a ride-along or two prior to being hired here, people were actually waving at the police car, putting their hands up off their steering wheel, kind of acknowledging the cop car. And coming from downstate, I’ve never seen that before."
Maybe fewer people are dreaming of being a cop right now, but for Holliday the dream was always there. He’s wanted to be a cop as far back as he can remember.