Bluffton police officers recently handed out 500 lollipops to students, teachers and administration staff at River Ridge Academy as one way to build relationships with community members of all ages. At the ready with the lollipops are, from left, Detective Ryan Fazekas, Lt. Christian Gonzales, Lt. Michael Danyov, Sgt. John DeStasio, and Captain Scott Chandler. COURTESY TOWN OF BLUFFTON

South Carolina is facing a law enforcement shortage. 

Gov. Henry McMaster requested that the Division of State Human Resources (DSHR) conduct an analysis of law enforcement compensation and provide results and recommendations to the General Assembly. The February 2022 report covered state agencies such as the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED), the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and the Department of Public Safety (DPS), which includes the South Carolina Highway Patrol (SCHP).

The analysis showed that fewer people were becoming police officers, more officers are leaving their departments and policing before retirement age, and more officers are currently becoming eligible to retire.

As of January, there are 444 vacancies, 15.63% of state officers are eligible to retire, and applications are down 25.6%

The South Carolina Sheriff’s Association surveyed municipalities and agencies across the state last September. Of those that responded, there were 4,600 law enforcement vacancies. The Department of Corrections alone had 1,200 openings.

The state’s numbers are a reflection of a nationwide situation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2021 there were approximately 795,000 police and sheriff’s patrol officer jobs in the United States, and about 67,100 vacancies each year.

For the three agencies tasked with protecting Beaufort County and Bluffton, retention, recruiting, benefits and compensation are critical to maintaining the level of safety the public expects.

South Carolina has more than 41,000 miles of state-maintained roads, patrolled by the South Carolina Highway Patrol. There are currently 750 highway patrol officers, and 345 vacancies. Recruiting is a major effort.

“People do leave the profession or take a job with another agency, so our numbers constantly move. We’re always looking for troopers to fill those slots,” said Sgt. Sonny Collins, SCHP community relations and recruiting officer. “Pay is always something because different agencies pay different amounts. We try to highlight the advantages such as a take-home patrol car, retirement, insurance – all those things that make a big difference.”

Collins said his team attends a number of career fairs to showcase the Highway Patrol.

“I think the key to recruiting is educating the public in exactly what we do, being transparent in how we do it, and to be able to explain and articulate whatever situation we’re talking about and how it evolved,” he said.

Collins said the agency is looking for a well-rounded, responsible individual who has integrity, is very self-motivating, and able to work on their own, because troopers typically work alone. The SCHP website lists all the requirements, pay, benefits and training troopers will receive, plus the various career paths available.

Chief Stephenie Price of the Bluffton Police Department said the department has made retention a primary focus.

“We have a great police department, and we want quality candidates that are going to be here, and make their home in Bluffton and their career in the department,” said Price. In seeking community service-oriented candidates, she said, “We have focused our recruiting campaign on ‘Why do you want to work for Bluffton?’ Well, you want to work for the community that appreciates public service. We are really blessed in the Lowcountry that we are really appreciated by our local community … It’s not that way in every community.”

Price said prospective applicants get the full tour of not only the police department facility, but the town.

“They ask everything from ‘how are the benefits’ to ‘do you like working here,’” she said.

Accepted applicants then attend the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy. Price said there were currently about 16 candidates in various stages of their programs. Former law enforcement officers get a streamlined curriculum.

“The academy really foresaw the shortage coming, and they shortened the process for qualified, quality candidates. They have two weeks of legal studies online, then take a comprehensive test, a driving qualification and shooting qualification, and then you’re done. Then we teach you how we do things in Bluffton,” said Price.

Officers receive a number of benefits that Price said creates an opportunity “to have a great balance between what work looks like and what work should look like.”

That includes a gym membership, and the time to work out on duty in the department’s gym; a voluntary physical agility program that earns participants 12 hours off from work; access to Spanish classes taught by one of the local high school teachers; jiu-jitsu training to learn about body mechanics; and a one-month sabbatical to do anything but policing after five years.

“Our town council and the town manager have been supportive of our initiatives to recruit officers,” Price said. “We have streamlined the process for applications and computerizing background checks. We follow-up on the human backgrounds to help assist in our thoroughly vetting candidates.”

There are currently 60 positions at BPD, and eight were open when Price began in October 2020. With new candidates in the pipeline, those and any other openings from departures should be filled, but there was some trimming of assignments.

“We pulled back any extra duties we had, people who were assigned elsewhere. Patrol is the most important duty we can do,” she said. “When we get more people in, we’ll be able to reevaluate the responsibilities. Patrol and 911 are not suffering.”

With the hometown emphasis, Price feels the department is attractive to those seeking the Lowcountry atmosphere, but she said there is an external challenge to recruitment and retention: better-paying jobs.

Most of those better-paying jobs are in the private sector, and many are work-at-home options – made common in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. And most higher-paying jobs do not include the hazardous conditions that are part of law enforcement.

Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner acknowledges the work-at-home trend. “You take that, coupled with law enforcement being the villain ever since George Floyd, or a little bit before that. Since then, there are the ‘defund the police’ movements, the national narrative on how law enforcement is painted with a broad brush being evil and villains,” he said. “There’s been a lot that’s tainted. This is a national battle.”

Retention is not the biggest issue for the BCSO. Among those who have left the agency, many had the time in to retire, some found themselves in stressful situations surrounding crime scenes or accidents and realized it was not the job for them, or retired and then moved into a better-paying second career.

“Out of 350 current employees, about 50 can retire because of age or length of service, but they’re still working,” Tanner said. “And we’re fortunate that they’re there. All of them have 30-plus years of service … we’re retaining all that experience that we’ve invested in. That’s rich.”

BCSO currently has 42 law enforcement vacancies, and 11 civilian vacancies, according to Tanner. Going through the hiring process are nine applicants for deputy sheriff and 12 civilians, which includes emergency dispatch.

Of greater concern is recruiting. All the information needed for those interested in applying for any BCSO position can be found online at the agency’s website. While the internet has made it easy for prospective applicants to find what they need to know, it has also made it easy for them to shop around for different agencies and careers.

“Salaries are the first thing people look at,” Tanner said. “And then you figure out what the pay is or what the benefits are. How many years do I have to work? How good is my retirement? We’ve got young people today that are coming to us having researched all of that, including 401Ks and 457 retirement plans. Then they are going to go out to other agencies and compare it.”

Benefits like a take-home vehicle, uniforms and equipment, paid holidays and leave, and health and dental insurance go along with the job, but those are not what has challenged prospective employees.

“We’ve had people turn down the job offer. They came down and went through the hiring process. We sent them a letter, told them that they had the job, gave them what the starting pay would be based on their experience and education. Then they say, ‘Well, I can’t find anything that I can afford to rent, so I can’t take the job,’” Tanner said.

“That’s because the average rent on a one-bedroom is $1,800 to $2,200. And there’s nothing about that affordable,” Tanner said.

The South Carolina state constitution requires that a deputy sheriff must live in the county of service. “So I can’t let them live in Jasper,” Tanner said. “I can’t let them live anywhere other than Beaufort County.”

The high cost of renting is not news to anyone looking for moderately priced housing on a modest salary. In 2020, the average South Carolina rent, according to the Census Bureau, was $918 per month. In Beaufort County, it was $1,229. The current going rate for available apartments in Bluffton on rent.com begins at $1,780 for a one-bedroom, one-bath unit, and goes up to $2,360 for three and two.

After looking at the Sheriff’s Association survey, Tanner said he sat down with his finance officer in January.

“We knew we had to be competitive with the private sector, so we raised our starting pay $7,000 in February. Then we made adjustments across the board with the entire staff,” said Tanner. “Then I got a copy of the state survey, which came out in February. I started looking at what their numbers were representing for compensation, and ours is right in line with it.”

The state’s compensation analysis recommended minimum salaries of $50,500 for SLED, $48,000 for DPS and $46,500 for DNR. That makes the BCSO equally competitive with state agencies.

“Things are looking a lot better since the county council has improved the 5% cost of living allowance that will go into effect in May. Starting salaries have increased over the past four months from $41K in January to the $50K increase in May,” Tanner said. “And that is for those applicants without a college degree and no experience. This salary range now gives people a chance to look at Beaufort County, see that they can afford to rent or even buy a house, and we’re starting to see an increase in applications. Things are looking up.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.