South Carolina agencies facing law enforcement officer shortage

SPARTANBURG, S.C. (WSPA) – Many Upstate law enforcement agencies say they’re in dire need of officers.

“We have to find people who hold to the oath of law enforcement,” Major Art Littlejohn said. “The people who would support the mission and values of the Spartanburg Police Department.”

Law enforcement officials say hiring and keeping police officers can be difficult, especially because of some people’s perception of them.

“More and more people are interested or have always been interested in law enforcement, but, now, with some of the climate and things that are going on, people are deciding, ‘Well, maybe that’s not for me,’” Major Littlejohn said.

We’ve learned this is true, not only for the Spartanburg Police Department, but for smaller towns, too, like Blacksburg.

“The recruitment pool of applicants that we get has diminished almost to nothing,” Blacksburg Police Chief Jamie Ham said. “We will often run ads for police officers, and get no certified officers apply and very little non-certified officers.”

In fact, they’re so short-staffed at the Blacksburg Police Department, it’s changed the Chief’s duties.

“I’m having to do most of our investigations. I’ve had to work on the road as a patrolman, and I’ve had to serve as school resource officer,” Ham said.

Law enforcement officials said it doesn’t help that many agencies are looking at the same candidates and competing with salaries.

“A lot of our small agencies lose police officers to larger agencies,” Chief Ham said.

“For example, you only have so many K-9 positions; but if you know somebody who really wants to become a K-9, and they found out there’s another organization that has an opening for a K-9, they may apply somewhere else,” Major Littlejohn said.

For most agencies, there’s an extensive background check.

“We talk to everybody,” Littlejohn said. “We talk to your neighbor. We talk to your mom, your dad. If you have an ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend, we talk to them as well.”

Littlejohn said there’s also a lengthy testing process you must go through before you can be hired. He said that testing includes a written portion, an oral interview, and agility courses.

“Not everyone who is interested can actually do this job, because it can be very challenging,” Major Littlejohn said. “So, many times we’ll hire somebody and they’ll say, ‘I want to do this;’ but, when they see what the job is about, they decide, ‘This may not be for me.’”

The number of officers needed for an agency is based off of population size; so, it’s different for every city and every county.

Right now, Spartanburg Police is looking to add 16 more officers to their force.

“Our authorized strength is 137, and we have 121 officers employed right now,” Littlejohn said.

Blacksburg is only an 11-man department, and they say their vacancies are hurting them more than ever.

“We’re three officers short, so we’re 27% short,” Ham said. “If you applied that to a large-scale agency, they wouldn’t be able to function.”

Their neighbors over at the Gaffney Police Department said they’re short 7 out of 41. That includes the Chief’s position since he’ll be retiring soon.

And over at the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, they currently have 65, but they need two more officers and two jailers.

The Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office told 7 News they have 343 total sworn positions and have five openings right now.

“We look for the best, and we believe that one of the best things we do–one of the best things you can do in law enforcement–is hire good people to start with,” Major Littlejohn said.

Chief Ham said officers are essential for many reasons.

“It doesn’t matter what size department you’re with, a criminal doesn’t know jurisdictional boundaries or any type of geography,” he said. “We have the same type of crimes in small towns as you have in the big cities; so, you still have murders. You still have armed robberies and that sort of thing.”

He has a message to anyone who is interested but may be hesitant about joining the force.

“Often, when you have the bad act of one police officer, it is portrayed that all police officers are bad. It’s disheartening for those of us who are out here, working hard and doing the best that we can possibly do,” Ham said. “But, for every one person who complains, there are 10,000 who appreciate what you do,” he said.