Recruits wanted for thankless journey. Low wages. Long hours. Safe return questionable. Apply: Nearest SC police department
I meet Cole Green within sight and scent of a mountain of York County’s trash. He works at the county landfill these days, making good money on a predictable schedule, without worrying that he might take a bullet from a stranger at a red light – three things he couldn’t say when he buttoned up his uniform and pinned on his badge every day.
After four years on the job, as a sheriff’s deputy in York and Chester counties, Green traded what he’d considered a calling and a passion for something that is better for his wife and two small children. They worry less, he breathes a little easier.
But he misses law enforcement.
“Every single day,” he says. "Every time I see a cop car, it just puts me right back in it. I think ultimately, I would probably end up back in it. But I’ve got to get to a position financially where I can be stable enough to go back.”
And there you have your answer to why this young man in his thirties with a passion for being a police officer is no longer a police officer: Money, or, rather, the lack thereof. For what police officers are asked to do – from putting their health, safety, and lives on the line every time they go on duty to having to deal with increasing public scrutiny and scorn, and all points in between – Green says the low salaries police officers make in South Carolina are just not worth it for a lot of men and women who would otherwise be good cops.
“[The pay is] an issue that needs to be resolved,” Green says. “These guys need to be paid what they’re worth because they’re risking their lives every single day.”
Green’s former employer at York County SO starts new officers at $40,000 per year. At agencies like the state Department of Public Safety, the top salary listed for a 10-year officer with a master’s degree is $58,349.
But at some departments, starting pay is notably lower. A listing for the Hardeeville Police Department posts starting pay at $30,800, which breaks down to about $15 per hour. In St. George, a police officer can start as low as $13 per hour. A report by WalletHub from May of 2021 listed South Carolina dead last in law enforcement income, adjusted for cost of living.
And while many agencies around the state have upped their salaries and have started adding sign-on bonuses, police officer pay here can still be an issue. Jarrod Bruder, executive director of the South Carolina Sheriffs Association, had a recent conversation with a sheriff who was working to get starting pay “up to $15 an hour.” Afterwards, Bruder went to get some lunch.
“I was at a drive-thru at Chik-fil-A and they were starting at $16 an hour,” he says. “That’s who we’re competing with, and we’re losing. Why would you want to go get shot at or potentially lose your life or be sued or be the next national news story when you could be serving fries and delicious chicken nuggets and those kinds of things? And a guaranteed Sunday off.”
Apparently, a lot of potential law enforcement officers in South Carolina have asked themselves that same kind of question.
“I don’t have the exact number, so I don’t want to give you bad information, but I’d say it’s got to be close to 1,000,” says J.J. Jones, executive director of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Association. He’s referring to how many officers short the state’s collective police departments are.
“It’s hundreds for sure,” he says. “That, I’m positive of. I can think of four departments right now that are 100-plus under. So statewide? If we’re not 1,000, we’re close. I’ve never seen anything this bad.”
Police leaders in the state say shortages like these, at their simplest put public safety in peril. There’s less overall police coverage, and where there is coverage, there are overworked, overstretched, and, potentially over-frustrated officers who can make bad decisions. NPR’s Planet Money podcast looked at a study from NYU last spring, which found that investing in more police officers is a benefit to communities.
Willingness to invest is actually not the problem, though.
“[Departments have] got the openings,” Bruder says. “They’ve got the funding to hire people, they just don’t have the applicants. Whereas you used to have a hundred people apply for three spots, you may have ten apply for three spots. Or five.”
Bruder says that by the time departments conduct the necessary “criminal background checks and drug tests and psych evaluations,” those tiny applicant pools whittle down in a hurry. A lot of potential recruits these days get disqualified for having used drugs. Others get weeded out because they don’t seem to grasp the realities of a job that will involve long shifts, overnight hours, and holidays on duty, while dealing with everything from negative public perception to mortal danger, which often gets new officers’ spouses worried.
"They may have an officer-involved shooting, and they lose people from that shift, who were working that day,” says South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy Director Jackie Swindler. “I tell them, ‘You’re going to lose people who were not even there that day.’ They go home and their spouse says, ‘We didn’t sign up for this.’ The kids say, ‘Mom and daddy, I don’t want you in this job – every time I hear something happened, I think it’s you. You’ve got to go do something else.’
So it isn’t just finding new officers that’s a problem, it’s keeping existing ones. In addition to retirements (officers hit full retirement after 25 years, meaning they can leave the field with full benefits in middle age and start a whole new career), the public pressure police officers say they feel these days is driving newer officers to other lines of work.
Swindler says that even before 2020, the year of George Floyd, “defund the police,” and intense conflict between police and citizens (and journalists), law enforcement saw an exodus of officers with less than five years on the job – roughly half, in fact; a third left within their first year. Swindler says that’s leveled off to about 8 percent now, but the damage done is slow to get repaired.
Relations with the Community
An uncomfortable truth in the law enforcement conversation is that it is so tied to the topic of color, whether black, brown, or blue. Social media in particular is full of discussions and arguments about the intersection of race and policing. Social justice advocates like Dr. Norma Grey of Rock Hill – a former president of the city’s NAACP chapter and a founding member of the city’s Citizens Review Board – say these tensions have strong historic reasons, but she also says that police and community members need to work together if there is to be a healthy marriage between the two entities. She says police agencies need to highlight the honorable things they do and work more to win over the trust of communities of color, and that in return, communities (of color of not) need to show police officers respect for the tough job they have.
Grey also says that police departments have a tremendous resource in Black and brown communities – they just need to approach these communities the right way.
“[It’s] going to take a lot of work in terms of the police department marketing a different way,” she says. “I think the way that they do that is by sharing their truthful integrity about them wanting us on their side.”
For their part, police departments all over South Carolina are working to mend racial tensions. Many, like Greenville PD, struggle to demographically represent the communities they serve, and Black officers in particular say that diversity training in law enforcement is inadequate. But departments’ online recruitment pages – which, before 2020 often featured images of tactical weapons and militaristic poses – today are replete with photographs highlighting women and officers of color in non-threatening, often friendly situations.
Some departments, like the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office, are taking big strides to make sure their staffs resemble the communities they serve. Oconee County Sheriff Mike Crenshaw says he noticed in a series of public meetings that many of the county’s minority residents were afraid of the police – something he says surprised him to learn.
“I didn’t think anybody was afraid of law enforcement in Oconee County,” he says.
The revelation led Crenshaw to hire a cultural diversity director – a former administrator from Southern Wesleyan University named Dan Holland, who came aboard in the summer of 2020. Holland says there was “no blueprint" to follow, but applauds that Crenshaw “was sensitive enough to think about, from a broad-based standpoint, that we want our agency to reflect our demographics and he was willing to put his money where his mouth is.”
Crenshaw says his department today is roughly 30 percent female, 7 percent African-American, and 2 percent Latinx – which closely reflects the racial makeup of Oconee County overall.
The blueprints being drawn up on the fly concentrate on reaching kids and teens in school, Crenshaw and Holland say (an approach backed up by Jackie Swindler, who says that even when he was a police chief years ago, he concentrated on finding future law enforcement talent in schools).
For Crenshaw, the answer to making a better department is a greater sense of inclusivity.
“If our employees within the agency truly feel like we’re supporting them and that we are an inclusive agency on the inside, I think that will help us from a retention standpoint – and hopefully from a recruiting standpoint on the outside.”
What Police Officers Do
Police officers are asked to do just about everything these days. It is for this reason that Norma Grey is not a supporter of calls to defund the police.
Likewise, State Rep. Jermaine Johnson (D-80th) says he’s never supported defunding the police. He does support reallocating resources to improve how police officers can do their jobs. Johnson has introduced several police-related bills into the state Legislature, involving police appreciation, body cam requirements, and, most notably for this session, a bill calling for police agencies in the state to contract with mental health professionals or maintain a licensed mental health worker to go on calls.
A major factor in community tensions with police departments is how police handle mental health situations. Johnson says that responding to someone having a mental health crisis with guns and handcuffs only makes things worse.
You know who agrees? The police.
“Law enforcement has become society’s first response to everything,” Bruder says. “My neighbor’s playing his music too loud. Call the cops. My daughter’s having a mental health breakdown. Call the cops.”
And when it comes to mental health calls, or, especially, mental health transports of patients involuntarily committed to a facility, Bruder says things can get problematic.
“We show up and do what law enforcement does – we put you in handcuffs and put you in the back of a patrol car, which oftentimes makes it worse,” he says. “You’re not having an issue that law enforcement needs to be involved with, you’re having a health crisis, but you get a law enforcement, criminal justice solution.”
For Grey, the way to show police officers the appropriate respect is to pay them accordingly. From her position on the Rock Hill Citizens Review Board, Grey says she’s seen just how hard it is for police officers to do their work, not the least reason being the ethical standards they’re subject to.
And for Bruder, this is the heart of why it’s so hard to find good officers – beyond the pay and the scrutiny and the pressure, it’s just hard to find recruits with enough ethical mettle to qualify for the job.
“You can’t lower your standard,” he says. “There is such high expectation from the public of what law enforcement officers are supposed to be and do.”