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Pushing for police reform: Local police chiefs weigh in on recruiting challenges

Posted at 4:59 PM, Mar 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-22 18:27:32-04

(WXYZ) — As the calls for police reform have increased over the last year, Action News wanted to take an in-depth look at policing in our community. Some local police chiefs agree that change is needed, but they need some help getting the right officers in the door.

Protestors across the country last summer demanded police reform after the horrific murder of George Floyd.

While many officers agree certain tactics need to change and diversity in departments needs to increase, police leaders we spoke to say what they really need is help from the state and the community to truly transform policing.

“We’re having such a hard time recruiting officers in. I just have the minimum that I can put out on the road,” said Taylor Police Chief John Blair.

Blair says the numbers of people interested in policing have plummeted since 1991 when he hired in.

“My list when I came on was about 350 people. So 350 people had scored the minimum standard for the written, as well as followed up and passed the oral exam. Our most recent list had three. Three people passed,” Blair told 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.

There are some local police academies, like Schoolcraft College Police Academy, that have reported a steady ebb and flow of recruits over the years, but that's not always the case elsewhere in our area.

Blair says he’s tried for years to recruit more minority candidates, but they often get lured away after a few years on the job by the feds or larger departments. But even a high-paying department like the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office has seen a steep decline in applicants. Officials there said ten years ago they would get between 600-800 applications; now they average less than 200.

Chief Blair says one of the biggest deterrents is the stress of the job and the current negative climate for police.

“If you screw up and you’re an accountant you might have put the decimal in the wrong spot. If we screw up as a police officer you might have someone dead,” said Blair.

Blair points to stressful incidents like those often caught on body cameras where his officers legally could shoot someone, such as a man who was armed and trying to kill himself.

WARNING: Viewer discretion advised. The following body cam video may be hard to watch and could be triggering for some. If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. This series of clips shows body cam video from the Taylor Police Department on three separate incidents in 2020 where, according to Taylor Police Chief John Blair, officers could have legally and lawfully used deadly force but didn’t: 1/27/20 A man armed with a knife who had stabbed himself multiple times; 5/19/20 Armed suspects fleeing after a homicide; 12/20/20 A domestic call where officers heard screams, forced entry and witnessed a man stabbing a woman.

Instead they immobilized him with a taser and rushed him to a hospital. While they save lives in situations like that, Blair says traumatic crime scenes do take their toll.

“Those stressors, not only what you see on the job, what you experience, there’s internal stressors as well. And I think that’s played a big role in the problems we’re having,” said Blair. Blair (who totally supports the use of body cams) also says the stress of having to wear a camera all day, every day can be a deterrent for some applicants.

“If you can imagine having a body camera on you all day, and people criticizing you, because we all understand that we’re all humans. I think at times our society has gotten to the point where they’re looking for computer precision from our officers and that’s not fair for human beings,” said Blair.

“Every time we have a major incident in this country, you go back to Rodney King. Reform is only a band-aid when something happens and the spotlight gets on you. 'Oh yeah, we fixed it, we put this policy in,'” said Inkster Police Chief William T. Riley III.

After the brutal beating of Floyd Dent in 2015, Chief Riley was hired to bring change to the small department.

“Policing as a whole from the bottom-up needs to be transformed. How we choose leaders in police depts. City governments – how they react to policing. Police officers should be partners with the community,” said Riley.

Riley says one of their biggest challenges in recruiting is having the funding to hire enough officers.

“I have at least 2 or 3 applicants that I could put into the academy right now, if the city had the money,” said Riley.

Financial security is another key factor.

“Salary plays a role as well; pensions play a role as well. It would be nice if the state could get with law enforcement and they could work out a way to make pensions not such a big burden on cities,” said Riley

Despite all the challenges, these chiefs say community outreach is the best way to encourage people to join their ranks.

“Citizens must start seeing the police as partners – not as adversaries,” said Riley.

“Instead of just responding to calls for service, making yourself a human,” said Blair. “I think the human side of police officers can go a long way into recruiting all people into this job for us.”

If you have a story for Heather, please email her at hcatallo@wxyz.com.