In Mobile’s busiest precinct, it doesn’t take long for new officers like Charlie Welch to gain experience.
“I ride a real high crime area,” Welch says as he drives down Virginia Street. “People say if you can work in the first precinct, you can work anywhere.”
Domestic calls, which can escalate at a moment’s notice, like one Welsh responds to while working on this story, may seem like a deterrent for new recruits. Mobile police chief James Barber says it’s a far different threat hurting their numbers and departments around the country.
“We had about 174 people who had signed up for the fall academy last year. And, when we called them, about 114 outright declined to even come in for testing,” Barber said. “It shows you where they had an interest in the beginning, and then because of all the controversy around law enforcement in the country, they changed their minds. ”
It’s not fear of answering a call, but one of public retaliation that Barber credits to a mass exodus from law enforcement departments like Mobile’s.
“We have a department that’s suffering 12-15% attrition last year. You’re talking about losing 60 police officers. That’s an entire precinct walking out the door,” Barber said. “So, when you go out into our community and do everything right, to be criticized and persecuted and to have a lot of inaccurate information about you, it has a very profound effect on the officer’s morale. ”
Welsh said he doesn’t let the national narrative discourage him from pursing the job he dreamed of his entire life.
“I used to work at Winn-Dixie. Working there, a lot of police officers would come in to work security. I used to ask them how they liked their job,” Welsh said. ” I knew this was my dream and it’s what I was put on this earth to do. ”
The reality is applicants like Welch are often hard to come by, and with the pool getting shallower, Barber believes the path to reversing the trend is multi-faceted.
Barber said the first step is starting with a $5,000 raise approved by City Council last year and ultimately ending with a shift in perspective.
“It’s really specific to the African American community. When you vilanize a department or agency, it hurts our minority recruitment. So, the ability to diversify our recruitment classes is increasingly difficult,” Barber said.
Even though a lot of people are declining to come into law enforcement. what type of person decides that they’re going to do it. despite all of the controversy in the country. where do they come from? I’m not sure. But I’m so grateful everyday, they still come to do this job. Can you imagine a society where nobody wants to do this job anymore.
“You’re in between a rock and a hard place,” Local NAACP President Lizetta McConnell said about recruiting African Americans as police officers. “If they [African Americans] saw you[police] in the community doing good things like what we saw after this big rise in police brutality against African Americans, and they saw you more in the community and not just to quiet us down…..That’s how you begin to build trust.”
“If we are to truly change the divisive rhetoric in this country, then we as a country, need to truly see each other beyond the color of skin and beyond the uniform,” Barber said. “I sincerely believe that if we take the time to truly see each other from the other’s perspective, a new understanding will begin and we can begin healing as a country. What you will see is that we are so much more alike than we are different.”
Until the dynamic begins to shift, recruits like Welsh will be hard to come by. Men and women are willing to put their lives on the line to protect yours.