Violence against police officers cuts into recruitment efforts

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Cody Conrad, president of Forsyth Tech's 2016 BLET class, congratulates his fellow cadets last week. (photo by Jordan Green)

Some police training programs are seeing the number of applicants drop as concerns mount about the danger of policing and public criticism of the profession.

Addressing the seven cadets in Forsyth Tech’s Basic Law Enforcement Training fall 2016 class, State Highway Patrol Sgt. Joshua Church gave voice to a sense of siege felt by members of the law enforcement community.

Church said that over his 16 years of experience in law enforcement he’s watched “public support and trust for law enforcement drop significantly.” With the rise of technology that allows people to quickly upload video and share information and viewpoints on Facebook, he said many people will “Monday-morning-quarterback” split-second decisions that make the difference in whether law enforcement officers come home to their families.

“Many are out there thinking you should wait to draw your weapon and fire until you’re fired upon,” said Church, who spoke to the cadet class during their graduation at Forsyth Tech’s Main Campus in Winston-Salem on Dec. 2. “Or they think that in any case that you shoot an individual that’s unarmed, it’s unjustified. Guess what, you’ve been trained completely differently — have you not? That just is not the truth, any way you look at it. You’ve all got the best firearms training that there is to offer, and you’ve seen the studies on reaction times. And I’m sorry, but action always beats reaction, correct?

“So, what I want you to do is remember your training,” he continued. “Remember that there is countless documented situations where unarmed people have killed officers. Rely on your training. Make good, sound decisions, and do what it takes to come home to all the family members and friends that are here today. You will have their support. You will have our support. And you will have the support of the thin blue line across the nation. That’s how we roll. Criminals have their gangs. Guess what? We do, too, and ours is a whole lot bigger than theirs.”

The Fall Class of 2016 is one of the smallest in reason memory, with previous class sizes ranging from 14 to 20, and W. Lorin Dingler, director of law enforcement training at Forsyth Tech, said that after news broke that five Dallas police officers were killed by a gunman in Dallas on July 7, half of the people who had signed up for the class decided to drop out.

Dingler said the number of cadets graduating from Basic Law Enforcement Training programs in North Carolina is down from 2,713 in 2013 to 1,067 this year, and that 32 percent of classes across the state had to be canceled because of low enrollment.

“It’s because of the publicity that officers are receiving,” Dingler said. “We have to join together as the community and the press knowing that when the police shoot someone, they’re not intending to shoot them. That’s what the criminals do. That’s the necessary evil of the job.”

Sgt. Church laid out in unsparing detail the widespread public perception of the cadets’ chosen profession.

“You also saw on TV and on Facebook and you read in the newspapers how law enforcement officers were considered to be abusers of power,” he said to the class of six white men and one Latino. “You saw how we took people’s rights away. You saw how we even killed people in cold blood. You saw in the media some officers get tried for murder or murder with a depraved heart or some level of manslaughter.”

The fact that the seven men still decided to sign up for the training program makes them a unique group, Church said.

“When you saw all that, one of two things entered your mind,” he said. “First was maybe the media was just lying to you and being deceitful, and what they reported was false and biased, and you saw law enforcement as an honorable and proud way of life. Or, maybe a small portion of what the media was reporting to you was correct, and you chose to enter the profession to make sure that it did remain honorable, and that those very small percentage of law enforcement officers who might actually be dishonorable were brought to justice. Regardless, you signed on the dotted line, and here you sit today. Here’s the thing: There were a whole lot of others who believed as you did in the beginning. You’re the Magnificent Seven. Wish there were five more of you so I could call you the Dirty Dozen.”

Statistics indicate that the number of law enforcement deaths in the line of duty is down. According to a tally kept by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, the average number of officer deaths for the first five years of this decade is 131 — the lowest decade average on record since the 1950s. The number of deaths has steadily dropped since the 1970s, with a slight uptick in the 2000s, when the average increased to 166 from 162 in the previous decade.

But Dingler said the statistics belie a disturbing trend about how police officers are being killed.

“Assaults by ambushes and shootings is out the roof,” he said. “Car crashes happen. An officer is standing on the side of the road and van plows into him. We’ve never had officers sitting in their cars doing paperwork and having someone come up behind them and shoot them. It’s unacceptable.”

Statistics maintained by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund indicate that shootings and auto crashes are by far the biggest causes of death in the line of duty, with shootings totaling 521 from 2006 through 2015, while auto crashes caused 408 deaths over the same period. Both numbers have fluctuated year to year, with a high of 73 shootings in 2011 compared to 41 in 2015. According to the organization, there have been 62 firearms-related fatalities so far this year, compared with 38 at the same time in 2015, and 51 traffic-related deaths in 2016, up from 46 in the same period of 2015.

Dingler said that due to negative publicity about the profession, enrollment in basic law enforcement training programs is down across the state, including the 10 largest municipal police departments, which run their own police academies.

Lt. Katie Paterson, who is responsible for training and recruitment for the Winston-Salem Police Department, said her agency has also seen the number of applicants drop, along with a decrease in interest at job fairs. The current academy, scheduled to graduate on Feb. 3, has only 16 cadets, compared to 23 graduates the previous year and 39 the year before that.

“I think obviously the current environment for law enforcement is very dangerous, and with law enforcement being targeted, it made people question whether this is something they want to get into,” Paterson said. She added that she doesn’t believe criticism of the police has been a factor in the drop in applications to her agency.

“We have a very good relationship with the community, and we participate in a lot of panels,” Paterson said.

“After Dallas, we had a huge outpouring of people bringing goodies and thank-you notes to the department, and people buying meals for officers,” she added.

The Greensboro Police Department’s current academy, scheduled to graduate on March 7, has 22 students, but the most recent class graduated 37 cadets in late July. Police spokesperson Susan Danielsen said the number fluctuates, but the department always finds plenty of qualified applicants.