PRATTVILLE ‒ Treyton Neely and Josiah Welch are bucking national trends.
The men have chosen law enforcement as a career, recently completing the police academy and joining the Prattville Police Department. Law enforcement agencies nationwide have been struggling to find new recruits since mid-2020 when the beginning of the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd at the hands of uniformed Minnesota police officers sent a seismic shift through the workforce.
Police departments are struggling to hire replacement officers to keep up with losses. A Police Executive Research Forum study released in April points to stark numbers. In 2022, 47 percent more resignations took place than two years prior. Couple that with retirements peaking in 2020 and 2021, and there are gaping holes in the number of experienced officers and those in leaderships positions.
The central Alabama community of Prattville has seen a similar decline in qualified recruits over that period. The police department has a manning roster of 96 but had double-digit losses in sworn officers on the streets.
“The industry took a big hit three years ago and got a black eye that is still there for many people,” said Prattville Police Chief Mark Thompson, a seasoned cop with more than 40 years on the job. “People just aren’t looking to law enforcement as a career like they did in the past. At least not the right kind of people we wanted to join our department.
“It’s a struggle getting good people and keeping good people.”
Thompson sees the trend continuing, but he also sees light on the horizon. The Prattville Police Department hired 18 new officers this calendar year. Even with those numbers the department is still nine slots from being fully staffed.
The department had to change how and where it recruited, and how it dealt with those recruits once they came through the door. Other agencies in the state have had to shift recruiting and hiring practices to stay ahead of the game.
New strategies to add and keep officers
The Tuscaloosa Police Department now offers incentives for the hiring of new officers and for current officers referring new hires, said Stephanie Taylor, spokeswoman for TPD. That includes a $5,000 sign-on bonus to new recruits, and about a dozen are eligible for the stipend. Current officers are eligible for a $2,500 bonus for referring new officers. And last summer the city council approved a $10,000 retention bonus for officers who sign two-year contracts with the department.
Other policy changes may have made the job easier.
“In the last few years, we’ve updated policies to allow beards and visible tattoos,” Taylor said. “Officers can now wear more lightweight uniforms that provide a higher-rated level of ballistic protection, instead of the older and more uncomfortable polyester ones along with heavy equipment belts. It’s more modern and functional – and safer. Those policies were changed after polling all officers in the department – almost all preferred the updated grooming and clothing policies.”
Workforce shortages have been evident in all sectors of business since the pandemic and law enforcement is not exempt, said Montgomery Police Chief Darryl Albert. Montgomery has fought that with higher police salaries, better training and promoting from within, leading to “above par” recruitment − initiatives Albert said have been supported by city leaders.
“Our retention efforts include a recent 3 percent across-the-board pay increase and expansion of the college incentive program, paid for by the Montgomery Police Department, adding two more universities to the existing list of institutions of higher learning,” Albert said. “Lastly, we are happy to announce recent promotions of police and corrections officers to higher ranks to show our commitment to upward advancement.”
TPD’s take-home car program has been expanded, allowing all patrol officers to drive their patrol cars home.
“We’re competing with other departments to hire from a pool of candidates that continues to shrink,” she said. “Offers like take-home cars, lateral pay and sign-on bonuses are routinely offered at other departments, making all of these measures are necessary to attract the best officers we can.”
Prattville Assistant Chief Jeff Hassell has the responsibility for finding recruits and then bringing them along through training until they graduate the academy and become POST, or Peace Officers Standard and Training, certified.
The usual sources have dried up, forcing a shift in finding recruits.
They went to job fairs at Alabama State University and Huntingdon College, where they recruited students with criminal justice degrees. “A lot of people now are using those degrees as a way to get into law school. We just weren’t getting recruits like we did five years or so earlier,” Hassell said.
“The trend may be changing. The people we hired all came to us.”
Recruiting in Prattville
The department has an aggressive social media program where current officers sell the department. Members of the department have attended Women in Law Enforcement seminars in an effort to add female officers to the roles, to no avail. And then, just in the past month, four or five women have contacted the department asking about the recruiting process, Hassell said.
For Neely, 24, and Welch, 30, the shift to a law enforcement career just seemed like the thing to do. Neely had been teaching at Bellingrath Middle School in Montgomery for four months. Welch had just left the Army after serving for five years and attaining the rank of staff sergeant.
Neely comes from a family with a law enforcement background, with a father and brother being former officers.
“I realized real quick that teaching wasn’t for me,” Neely said. “There were days when I hated my job. Now, there’s not a day that I regret coming to work. As a police officer you meet people who are having the worst days of their lives. I want to make a difference. I want to give them hope.”
Welch understands the impression some may have of law enforcement, especially impressions formed in the past three years or so.
“I never wanted a career where you would just benefit yourself and make a lot of money. I wanted to make a difference,” Welch said. “Even with this short time I’ve met people who hate police officers. I want to make a better impression of them than the last cop they met made on them.”
Getting and keeping recruits
Prattville’s leaders spotlight competitive pay for recruits, a well-funded police department and a supportive community. Starting pay for an officer in Prattville has increased over the years and now starts at $48,000 a year, plus benefits. There are bumps in pay for certifications received, college degrees attained and training completed.
PPD is selective in who they hire. Recruits undergo exhaustive background checks, which include social media activitities. There’s also a psychological evaluation. The state now requires such exams for police recruits, but Prattville did it for years before that.
“We want to get the best recruits,” Thompson said. “The people of Prattville deserve to have the best officers serving them. But still, some don’t make it.”
To protect that investment, another practice has been put in place. Recruits are hired months before they are set to go to the academy. They are put through a mini academy of sorts that focuses on marksmanship, physical training, academics and how to deal with the stresses of the academy. All to better prepare them for what lies ahead, Thompson said.
It seems to work. Welch and Neely were classmates, with Welch taking top academic honors and Neely being top shooter of the class.
“When we were in Prattville, we roomed together and spent hours in our room shining our boots and reciting the code of ethics and laws of arrest,” Neely said. “When we got to the academy, we had to memorize the code of ethics and laws of arrest so we already had the upper hand.
“And the five of us showed up with shined boots. Everybody else showed up with dusty boots. We stuck together during the academy and kept encouraging and pushing each other.”
Both men say they made the right choice in putting on the uniform.
“I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to do,” Welch said.
Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Marty Roney at email@example.com.