CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. (KFVS) - It’s considered one of the biggest issues facing law enforcement agencies right now--recruiting new officers.
According to statistics from the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the number of men and women applying to become troopers dropped a whopping 72 percent from the first recruit class of 2009 to the first of 2020.
To try and find out why, we went to the heart of the Patrol’s recruiting efforts in Jefferson City.
We caught up with members of the 109th recruit class during the second week of Academy training in mid-January.
The Heartland was well represented, with seven recruits out of 25. It’s the number of applicants wanting to get to this point that’s cause for concern.
“We have seen, over the past 10 years, are numbers go from say 1,500 people applying for a recruit class to down to 1,000 to the last class was just under 500,” Captain John Hotz said. Hotz serves as director of Public Information and Education for the Patrol. Hotz called the recruiting process long, and challenging.
“So of course, if the number we start off with is not very big, it ultimately can make it difficult depending on how many positions we have to fill as far as how many qualified applicants we actually get for those positions.”
And just nine days into the Patrol’s Academy, this class is 13 members smaller than when it started. Hotz, a 30-year patrol veteran, said much has changed since he first put on the uniform.
“We know we live in an age of instant information. Probably information overload. And so, people are seeing stuff that’s happening all across the country. And we know, unfortunately, that law enforcement is portrayed in a negative manner. And so that... it still hurts when we’re trying to attract people to this profession.”
“I think the trust was better back when I first started than it is now,” Trooper Drew Baker said.
Baker patrols in his home county of St. Louis. He started in the Air Force, then worked for municipal police departments. The father of two joined the Missouri State Highway Patrol in June 2019.
“Obviously we know what happened in Ferguson. Not only Ferguson but across our whole country. You know the different things that happened to tear down the trust and everything else that the police have with the public.”
Baker actually worked the protest line during the unrest that broke out in Ferguson following the officer-involved shooting death of Michael Brown in 2014.
When asked if he was treated any differently on that line as an African American officer versus his white counterparts, Baker said yes.
“Personally, I thought myself and other African American officers were called like Uncle Tom and a traitor and stuff like that. Being that people kind of viewed us as, why would you be doing this? They’re against us. And you’re just helping them be against us," he responded.
Statistics from the Patrol also show a significant drop in minority applicants; from a high of 288 back in 2012, down to just 68 for this current recruit class. Three made it to the academy.
“Certainly some of the minority communities around the state, Kansas City, St. Louis, you just don’t see the Highway Patrol there that much,” Captain Hotz said. “So, they’re not exposed to us. And we know that, if you don’t know someone, it’s hard to trust them.”
Trooper Dontai Johnson graduated last December and continues learning the ropes with a Field Training Officer. Johnson said he’s already learning just wearing a uniform can bring out a certain reaction from the public.
“I think the age we live in nowadays with certain things that certain police officers have done has made the public view law enforcement as the criminal. The evil person. But, that’s just the time we live in.”
Amanda Renn sensed that negative opinion, even without the uniform.
“It’s actually quite difficult, especially the view of law enforcement at the current moment,” she said.
Renn’s currently down two people in her Human Resources Department. The Patrol counts 100 total civilian vacancies.
“There are multiple civilian positions we’re posting two or three times.”
If all the recruits in the 109th class make it to graduation in June, there won’t be enough of them to fill the Patrol’s 40 open trooper positions. But just as they’re being trained to trust each other, leaders in the Patrol know it will take that same level of trust to get more qualified people behind the badge.
“We know if people trust our organization, they want to be a part of that organization. And it helps all of us. Not only our organization but the entire state that we serve.”
Even spending only two days at the Academy, you can see the recruits faced both mental and physical tests.
“I mean, we’d love it if all of them make it through,” Hotz said of the class. “But we don’t want somebody out there working the road who is not going to be able to handle the stress that comes along with it.”
And for the recruits who make it through, the Patrol points to the opportunities on the other side.
“So we will usually purchase at least 400 to 500 new vehicles every year.”
Lt. Jason Pace showed us the massive garage that keeps the Patrol’s fleet running, and outfits all its new vehicles which often serve as a young trooper’s mobile office.
“So if we can offer that to a new recruit, you know, you have the opportunity to drive a brand-new Charger on a daily basis and be able to protect and serve the public in that type of vehicle, that’s a huge selling point.”
Recruits learn how to handle those vehicles on a 2.3 mile track that would give NASCAR a run for its money. The patrol’s aircraft division handles personnel and assists in searches and traffic enforcement.
Sergeant Brad Holman got his helicopter rating as a trooper.
“The neatest thing is getting that call, whether it’s a missing person or a wanted person. Gearing up. Getting in that helicopter. Going out," he said. “Finding that person, that missing person or that wanted person, utilizing the helicopter. It’s so rewarding.”
From the air, the water, or the ground, Captain Hotz said they want positive interaction with the people they serve. And they want those people to see themselves in these troopers.
“We want, obviously, to be a law enforcement organization that represents the community that we serve. And we want to try to match demographically with the community that we serve.”
That challenge is not lost on Trooper Baker.
“Sometimes, you know the public, maybe dealing with an African American citizen, they don’t find any type of trust in law enforcement. And they may be willing to talk to an African American officer and get help from them.”
The Patrol’s also partnering with organizations across the state to make positive connections with kids, something Dontai Johnson credited with sparking his interest in police work at an early age.
“They would come drive down the block and talk to me, talk to the rest of my friends. Just seeing cops do good things and talk to me was something that made me want to do what they do.”
“We stay professional and treat everybody the same,” said Trooper Sadie Gordon.
There was a common thread among Gordon, Baker and Johnson - a self-appointed duty to act as ambassadors not just for the Patrol for their profession.
“So if anyone has a fear of police or they may have had a bad experience in the past, we just try to do our job and do it fair, ” Gordon said.
"These are the steps that we’re trying to take to bridge that gap and build trust within our community,” Baker said.
“Upholding the standards and all the core values the Missouri State Highway Patrol stands for is going to be something that helps me to just push it aside and be more genuine to them and let them know I’m not here to be the bad guy,” Johnson explained. “I’m just here to enforce the laws and make the highway safe.”
The patrol’s continued recruiting efforts are also extending to those dozens of civilian vacancies.
Amanda Renn with Human Resources said they are now working the recruiting division and the community outreach division to spread the word about those dozens of open positions that don’t require a badge or six months at the academy.