Stigma, pay hamper recruiting effort at Wayne Co. Sheriff's Office

James David Dickson
The Detroit News
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Detroit — With 200 jobs to fill at the Wayne County Jail, recruiting candidates is a top priority for Sheriff Raphael Washington. 

But a recent job fair, which drew only two applicants in three hours, indicates the uphill nature of the battle for his department.

"When you turn on the TV and everything about the cops is bad, it makes kids not want to work in law enforcement," said Keith Williams, one of the recruiters taking part in the event May 22 outside Greater Emmanuel Institutional Church of God in Christ on Detroit's west side. "And then there's the peer pressure."

Washington's office in the midst of a recruiting effort targeting young people, especially recent high school graduates, to bolster its ranks. It's a task the sheriff, recruiting staff and union officials agree isn't easy amid concerns about long hours, starting pay lower than neighboring departments and a national stigma over policing.

Williams and fellow recruiter Mark Diaz sat at a table, under a tent, in the back of the church's lot during the recent recruiting event. The table was draped with a Sheriff's Office banner bearing the name of the late-Benny Napoleon, who died of COVID-19 in December. 

Blair Allen, 29, took the time to inquire about a job opportunity.

"I saw these guys out here and thought this might be the perfect opportunity for me," said Allen, a Detroiter.  

It's "tough," Allen said, being a young, Black male considering a career in law enforcement in Detroit at a time when police brutality is a hot-button issue.

Wayne County Sheriff Raphael Washington, left, speaks with applicant Blair Allen, right, and recruiter Keith Williams, at the May 22 recruiting event.

"You have your friends who are on the wrong side of the law," Allen said. "They'll have their opinions, but would you rather be running from the law all your life, or be a part of it?"

Washington has said he's aware of the stigma against law enforcement work and leans into it, challenging would-be applicants to "be the change." Outgoing Detroit police Chief James Craig took the same approach last year during a recruiting push.

"We know why young people are a little disenchanted with what they see in law enforcement, and things that we've done wrong, but that's just a small fraction," Washington said. "They want to see the change, they have to be the change."

Diaz, a retired 25-year veteran of Detroit Police Department, portrays the job as a chance to "be a part of the positive side of society" by "preserving the safety and rights" of people who are either awaiting trial, or who've been sentenced to short jail stays.

"How do you go from zero to 200 (recruits)?," Diaz said of the county's staffing challenge. "By getting the word out about what we're doing and why we do it."

Williams said the turnout at the May 22 event wasn't unheard of. He noted a past career fair at Mumford High School in Detroit when only one student approached the recruiting booth. He said he's made the pitch at high schools across Wayne County, mostly to disinterested youth. 

"When you walk in with a uniform on, there's going to be some pushback," said Williams, 65. 

As he walked through the halls of a school in Detroit, Williams said, a teen male pointed at him and said "that's the opps," short for opposition, and shorthand, to anyone listening, for to be avoided. 

"You can't go into the general population at schools," Williams said. "Kids mostly aren't interested and they face peer pressure. When you get one who is (interested), he won't tell you until you walk out and he follows you down the hall. He doesn't want his friends to know."

Added Rashidah Gamble, an administrative assistant who works in recruiting: "I believe a large part of our difficulty with numbers has been the misconception about working for law enforcement. Especially with our young people. They have the belief that we're the enemy."

'Optics' of low salaries, reality of overtime

Washington said he has talked with Wayne County Executive Warren Evans about a pay raise for deputies.

The starting salary in Wayne County, $36,000, is lower than the sheriff's offices in Oakland ($40,000) and Macomb ($44,000).

"Optics are important, when you're saying $35,000 versus $40,000 or more," Washington said. "(Evans) understands that, and he's been very accommodating."

Evans' office had no immediate update on the prospect of higher starting pay.

Despite the relatively low base pay, Washington uses money as the sales pitch for recent high school graduates.

There are nightly overtime opportunities at the jail. A starting salary in the $30,000 and up range could result in $55,000 after all the overtime, he noted. 

"That's got to be attractive to an 18-, 19-year-old," Washington said.

Union: Retention is a problem too

The Wayne County Deputy Sheriff's Association, the union representing 540 deputy sheriffs, published a report card for Washington earlier in May. It gave Washington mostly failing grades, including an F for recruitment and retention.

Part of the reason for the report card is Washington, who was appointed in January, is lesser-known than his predecessor, union leaders say. 

"This is a selected sheriff, not an elected sheriff," said Cpl. Reginald Crawford, president of the union. "We are going to hold him accountable."

Washington's administration did not respond to a request for comment on the union's report card. 

But in April, Washington said the department's staffing was "at the very top of my list" to address "so that we don't have to continuously force people to work overtime and run up our overtime budget."

Paula Bridges, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office, said an event schedule for recruiting is still being worked out. Washington has said that June will factor largely into the department's effort, since that's when high school students graduate. 

Last year, the department hired 27 new officers, but it had 98 departures, and 2021 is trending in the same direction, with 16 hires and 46 departures. Union leaders said they have urged members to stay on when they broach the topic of retirement.

Usually, it is without success, Crawford said. Someone talking about leaving either has a new job lined up or "nothing left to give," he said, and a mindset on retiring.

The union believes that hiring 18-year-olds motivated by money is a bad plan — they often leave soon after starting the job. 

"How many 18-year-olds do you know who want to work doubles every weekend and not be allowed any time off their first year?" said Cpl. Allen Cox, second vice president at the union. "We've had people take their lunch break and leave their uniform behind and walk off the job."

jdickson@detroitnews.com

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