By Caleb Groves
KENNESAW, Ga.– 33-year law enforcement veteran, Tim Fant is now retired but still involved with agencies around the metro Atlanta area, including the Marietta Police Department, where the department is being impacted by short-staffing in the investigative division, forcing them to pull nearly the entire drug task force unit to assist. As part of Fant’s career, he was head of the division in the Marietta Police Department.
When the investigative division is short-staffed, cases pile up. The detectives do not have time to thoroughly look through cases impacting the community, Fant said, who experienced this during his time at the Marietta Police Department.
“You can see where it affects officers, it affects the public, it affects businesses, all the way down the line,” Fant said. “And that’s happening in practically every agency around here.”
Many Georgia law enforcement agencies are having a difficult time finding new recruits. Because of shortages, more work is assigned to current law enforcement staff.
There are a number of factors contributing to understaffing.
However, according to Dr. Stan Crowder, a Professor of Criminal Justice at Kennesaw State University, pay and poor leadership are the biggest factors for struggling police departments.
[CORRECTION: a previous version of this article stated Dr. Crowder was formerly employed by the GBI. This was in error]
Special units like SWAT and investigative divisions are the first to be cut. Police departments make 911 calls their top priority, Sally Riddle, cofounder of the Cobb Coalition for Public Safety, said.
Short-staffed investigative divisions’ caseloads pile up, leading to ineffective performance, creating the potential for more criminal activity, Riddle said.
Historically, high wages have never been the primary motivation for joining law enforcement. Many people that join law enforcement feel that it is a kind of calling instead of a job for a paycheck, Fant said. However, in recent years the low wages have raised difficulties in retaining and attracting new recruits, Fant said.
“If you look at the starting salaries for police officers, they’re not that high. And it’s not unusual for beginning police officers to have a second job,” Riddle said.
Not only have low wages been challenging to recruiting efforts, but also ineffective leadership has hindered retention as well as recruitment, according to Crowder.
Unless leadership improves, recruiting efforts will not help agencies to the extent they may need, Crowder said.
“It’s been going on for decades and decades that police, fire, teachers, nurses, they have low pay because they know people will do it for almost nothing,” Fant said.
In response, short staffing in law enforcement has led many local agencies to add more benefits and increase starting wages; agencies such as Cobb County, Sandy Springs and Cherokee.
What is the Cobb County Police Department doing about the shortages?
There have been nearly 100 vacancies in the Cobb County Police Department, with around 700 on staff, said Sergeant Williams of the Cobb County Police Department during a job fairs in June. To fill these vacant positions, the department has been spending more on advertising and hosting job fairs for the department. These job fairs have been successful but not as successful as the department would like, Williams said.
Job fairs and advertising are helping relieve staff in the police department. Officers are overworked and unable to take vacation time or take days off for training leave due to staff shortages, Williams said. Law enforcement agencies cannot improve the quality of their staff, stagnating careers in law enforcement and improvements in the quality of their community, Crowder said.
“As this continues to linger on, year after year after year, officers working the beat, some of them get tired of it and they quit,” Sgt. Williams said.
Multiple factors contribute to recruitment difficulties in law enforcement, such as villainization of the police, personal and monetary factors, Ofc. Charles McPhilamy of the Marietta Police Department said.
There is no one reason that recruitment has been challenging; you will get different opinions depending on who you ask, Sgt. Wayne Delk of the Cobb County Police Department said.
On top of spending more on advertising, the Cobb County police offer additional benefits to joining. The department now provides squad cars to take home with officers. This allows officers more mobility and saves money on gas and commute times to and from work, which is a great benefit while gas prices are high, Williams said.
Law enforcement agencies such as the Cobb County Police Department have improved their training in recent years. The department is looking into making mental health evaluations mandatory annually rather than only before being recruited, Riddle said.
Though there are some bad officers, most officers are good. Public officers need public support, improved training and equipment, Riddle said.
“If you’re having a hard time getting candidates, you have to lower your standards,” Fant said.
Incentives help with recruitment. However, benefits have slowly gotten worse in law enforcement over the years, making law enforcement less appealing than it was in the past, Fant said.
How are staff shortages impacting communities?
Staff shortages in law enforcement are problematic not just for the police department but for the public too. This shortage has caused longer response times to 911 calls. It also has restricted officers from taking time off and forced them to work longer hours, Williams said.
“I speak to officers weekly who are negatively impacted by shortages,” Fant said. “They are asked to sacrifice more and are frustrated by observing what is happening in their communities.”
Coinciding with staff shortages, Georgia crime rates have risen from 2020 to 2021, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. There is no complete data for 2022 yet, but the crime rates for violence, rape, murder and overall crime have all risen from 2020 to 2021.
On Sept. 8, 2022, Deputy Sheriff Jonathan Koleski and Deputy Sheriff Marshall Ervin, Jr. were shot and killed while conducting a search warrant in Cobb County. This is the first time a Cobb County police officer was killed in the line of duty since 1990, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.
“I’m sure the stress levels within our law enforcement community are highly elevated because of the deaths of those two deputies and knowing that that can happen to any of our public safety officers,” Riddle said.
Understaffing makes training new and existing staff problematic. This impacts both the departments and the community. The departments cannot improve the quality of officers, which stagnates careers in law enforcement and jeopardizes the safety of the community, Crowder said.
“It’s a never-ending battle,” Williams said when discussing the struggle of retaining and taking in new recruits.
Caleb Groves is a Journalism student at Kennesaw State University, where he is a junior.
Originally from Minnesota, Caleb moved to Georgia with his family, where he now lives in Woodstock with his Father, Stepmom and numerous pets.
When he is not in writing, in class or coaching rock climbing, he spends his time listening to music and rock climbing both indoors and out