The images are shocking. Seared into our consciousness via constant replays on television, multiple threads on social media and newspaper photos attached to bold headlines.
Videos of beatings, shootings and just this past week, photos of two white police officers on horseback leading a black, handcuffed trespassing suspect in Galveston, Texas — all these images strike blows to the perception of all law enforcement officers.
And whether the actions of the officers involved are justified or not, and whether they followed departmental policy or not, the initial reaction to the images often lingers.
No matter how far away these situations take place, Triad law enforcement officials said it affects them here. It affects their ability to attract good candidates. It affects the tenuous trust between those carrying the badge and those they are sworn to protect. It affects officers’ morale.
“Things that happen in one part of the country now becomes news feed all over the world,” Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough said. “People are now more critical of law enforcement.”
Much of that criticism is unjust, said Jim Gunn, the director of the Basic Law Enforcement Training program at Rockingham Community College in Wentworth.
“In this day and time, I think the police officers — no matter what the circumstances are of the shooting — they are tried and convicted in the media,” Gunn said. “It’s whatever sells the story. That hurts our retention and it hurts our program.”
He said the media, in its coverage of these events, is ignorant about procedures intended to ensure officer safety and the safety of those they arrest.
“It’s their lack of knowledge of the police and the tactics used and the laws we have to follow,” Gunn said.
Other law enforcement officials agreed that news and social media coverage contributes to an unfair perception in some situations.
“If you see something day in and day out, you start to believe that and it consumes you,” said Highway Patrol Capt. Dee Robinson. “The little couple of snippets of news footage or camera footage you get from someone’s cellphone, not only does it not show you the entire event, it sometimes can warp your perception until you get the full scope of the picture.”
Law enforcement officers are well-aware of the scenario.
“Every time you answer a call, there’s four people there with a cellphone video just waiting for you to make a mistake,” Madison Police Chief Mike Rutherford said. “And it’s very stressful. Everybody Monday-morning quarterbacks us.
“When an officer receives a call … he or she’s got to make a split-second decision. And then you’ve got three days to look at all the evidence and the tape and everything, figure out what you would have done. But he had to make a decision in three seconds,” Rutherford said.
“I’m not saying bad decisions aren’t made,” he added, but not all of those decisions are based on ill intent. “I always looked at it like if you can come in here and sit down and explain to me why you did what you did, we can deal with it from there. But at least make a common-sense rational decision.”
High Point police Capt. Anthro Gamble noted that video coverage of officers isn’t all that new, and can be useful — even with the most shocking situations.
“I think social media is a big challenge for us,” Gamble said. “But … when Rodney King happened, we had to change how we policed,” he said, referring to the 1991 beating of King, a black man, by four white Los Angeles police officers. It was caught on amateur video, which was used at the trial of four officers charged in the beating. A jury acquitted the officers of nearly all charges, leading to days of rioting in the city.
“This is just another layer of being able to adjust how we police,” Gamble said.
Guilford County sheriff’s Lt. Tommy Sluder agreed.
“We equip our officers with body cams … and we’re training our officers to be mindful that, while they may be videoing others, others may be videoing them. And so it is a training piece,” Sluder said.
“If you’re training your officers to be mindful of that, if you’re trying to treat each person with respect regardless of the situation, but that you’re doing it with ... officer safety in mind, ... you’re going to be OK,” he said.
The use of social media by police officers themselves also has caused concern among those inside and outside of the profession — and has led to reprimands and firings for some officers.
Late last month, Hampton University in Virginia fired nine of its 25 police officers for sharing “misogynistic, racist and other offensive remarks via social media,” The Associated Press reported.
And police departments in at least five states are investigating the social media feeds of their officers after the publication of a database that appears to catalog thousands of inflammatory posts by active-duty and former officers, the AP reported.
Local law enforcement agencies routinely scour social media accounts as part of their screening process for recruits. They also tell them to clean up their accounts up if they intend to work in law enforcement.
“One of the first things they do out at the training academy is go through people’s social media profiles, and they will embarrass some of the folks, saying, ‘Here you are holding a beer,’ and everybody in class is watching them go through your social media profiles,” said Sgt. Ryan Todd of the Greensboro Police Department. “We told you to clean this stuff up and now we’re embarrassing you. Now take care of it.”
Recruits have to realize that in all aspects of their life they represent the agency that hired them, Todd said.
“You don’t represent yourself,” he said, “you represent every one of us.”
Personal social media accounts also can potentially endanger officers in a different way.
“There is a fear too, of having a picture of me standing in front of my car or in front of my house, I just arrested this gangbanger, he got out of jail that night and now he can find out where I live or my wife lives or my family lives,” Todd said.
Even a police department’s own social media accounts can cause concern.
The Madison Police Department used to post images of people who were arrested and charged with minor crimes.
“I figured out that I didn’t need to post pictures on here of who we were arresting to show my community that we were out here working,” Rutherford, the police chief, said. “I was getting more blowback from family members of the people we were arresting — which is public record — but I found it was doing more harm than good for me.”
He stopped the practice when he found people were taking the photos and making them into memes to harass the families of those arrested.
Despite the many negative aspects, law enforcement has found positive ways to use social media.
It allows agencies to do such things as instantly send out information about weather and traffic alerts, receive help in finding suspects, and alert the public to dangerous situations, such as reports of a shooter.
And it’s a primary tool for reaching potential applicants — especially for smaller departments that may not have recruitment officers — and to reach people who may not otherwise have considered a law enforcement job.
Social media networks can offer encouragement to law enforcement, and bring attention to officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty and to GoFundMe accounts set up for their families.
In High Point, Sgt. Anthro Gamble said some officers’ wives belong to a Facebook group where they network and provide support for one another and help the newer officers’ wives know what to expect.
Families often are torn over the idea of a loved one becoming a police officer and friends sometimes turn away when someone enters law enforcement, officials said.
“The wives understand that it is kind of stressful and trying” being married to a police officer, Gamble said.
Social media also provides a platform for police officers to poke fun at themselves and let the community know cops are human, too.
Last year, many local departments participated in lip-sync challenges, with some of them inviting the community to join in the fun.
In Greensboro, Todd starred in a video on that agency’s Facebook page, poking fun at the K-9 unit on April Fool’s Day. The video announced the whimsical “launch” of a competing K-10 unit, featuring cats available for adoption.
“Social media is a huge and excellent way for us to be able to sort of build bridges with people and talk to them,” Todd said.
Ferguson: Racial tensions linger five years after black man’s death at hands of white officer. Page A18
GREENSBORO — “You can go out and do the right thing in this job and be sued and be fired. That is a truth,” Greensboro Police Sgt. Ryan Todd said.
“It gives a lot of pause to a lot of officers,” said Todd, who’s in charge of recruitment for the Greensboro Police Department. “It definitely affects our retention rate.”
But the department still has plenty of people applying to be officers, Todd said.
“The courageous will still come and apply; we still get them,” he said.
That courage goes beyond facing the risk of being killed in the line of duty. It also encompasses intense scrutiny from news organizations, volatile criticism on social media and law enforcement officers being seen by some as the enemy.
The degree of difficulty in filling law enforcement positions, and keeping the veteran officers, varies among Triad agencies. Pay plays a big part in who’s able to attract and keep applicants, and if the economy is good, filling these positions is even tougher.
To combat this, some agencies have relaxed rules prohibiting facial hair and visible tattoos and even allow some minor drug convictions.
Even an abundance of vacancies can be used in recruitment, as is the case with the Highway Patrol, which is trying to fill 222 positions for sworn officers, those who have to take an oath to serve.
“With a state agency, people are really concerned about where they have to go,” said Trooper Michael Mitchell, recruiter for Troop D, which includes Guilford, Rockingham, Alamance and Randolph counties.
Those who graduate from the agency’s Basic Patrol School get a “wish list” of three counties in which they would prefer to work. “The last two patrol schools we’ve had, everyone has gotten something off their wish list,” Mitchell said.
Although that will change as vacancies get filled, for now, it’s a selling point.
John Eberle of Greensboro said flexibility was a factor for him in choosing to pursue becoming a trooper.
“My then-fiancee didn’t know where she was going to be working,” said the 23-year-old, who was preparing to go to Basic Patrol School late last month. Pay and benefits also played a part in his decision, he said.
Cadets get paid $37,323, and their pay is boosted to $44,000 upon graduation, with a 6.5% annual raise. Master troopers get a base pay of $64,000. Upon retirement, former troopers get 103% of the average salary of their top four earning years, Mitchell said.
In Greensboro, the department’s policy of paying recruits as they go through Basic Law Enforcement Training gives it an advantage, Todd said. The state-mandated training takes about 16 weeks.
“We typically pay higher than even the job you would get if you went to Kernersville and became a police officer; we start you at a higher salary as a trainee than you would get if you went through BLET and then got the job there,” Todd said. “So people compete to get into our agencies.”
Todd said the agency gets about 1,400 applications a year and typically hires about 6% of those applicants. The starting salary is $38,222 a year.
Greensboro, which Todd said competes with Raleigh and Charlotte, also has an advantage because it pre-hires applicants with full pay and benefits while they’re waiting to enter one of the twice-yearly police academies. One recent hire awaiting the Sept. 1 academy start date spends half her day working out at the training center, which keeps her physically ready for the six-month-long police academy, Todd said. The rest of the day she performs tasks such as helping with the department’s Safety Town program for children or calling owners of recovered stolen property.
“We go ahead and use that vacancy within the agency to put her in it, and we get a lot out of that,” Todd said. “She gets the (physical training) part of it, and she knows a lot about the agency ... and she’ll be a lot more apt to pass those classes,” he said. “So we feel like we get something for our money.”
Todd said he keeps in close contact with applicants.
“If you’ve applied with Raleigh and Charlotte, and we can call you first, generally we find that people will come to the place to call them first — because I’m giving you a job,” he said.
A no-rotation schedule also helps with recruitment, Todd said.
“We work four days on four days off (11-hour shifts), so that is very attractive. You only work four days a week in this career, and then you get a four-day weekend.”
There are four different shifts, and “some of those shifts are really good for family life,” he said. It can backfire, though, with a few employees using the time to start their own business and then leaving the force to focus on that business.
Pay also is an issue for the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office, which has a starting salary of between $36,731 for someone with a high school diploma and $42,131 for someone with a master’s degree.
“I recently did just a quick little study to see where we fell with surrounding agencies, and we’re pretty low on the list,” said Lt. Tommy Sluder.
A pay study for all employees will be presented to the county commissioners soon, he said, and he hopes that will result in higher pay for deputies.
“Today’s generation is more concerned about salary than fringe benefits,” Sluder said.
For some, the risks are not worth the pay.
“We run the numbers and show them and they’re like, eh, naw ... not (enough money) for the liability of the job and the safety factor,” Sluder said. “The pay is not equal to the hazard, for lack of a better term.”
Pay also affects retention, he said. For awhile, the county froze merit increases, he said.
“That set us further back. We’ve never been able to catch up from that freeze,” he said. The past couple of years the county has allowed a 3% merit increase.
Under Sheriff Danny Rogers, the agency now allows a neatly trimmed goatee or beard.
And the sheriff’s office hopes to begin paying candidates while they complete their training, making the agency more competitive. However, that has not yet been approved, Sluder said.
Madison Police Chief Mike Rutherford, whose agency pays just shy of $36,000, finds the city’s location one of his greatest recruitment challenges.
“They can go to Greensboro, 30 minutes away, and they will get a two- or three-thousand-dollar raise walking in the door,” Rutherford said. “And to a young officer with a family, that’s a lot of money.”
To combat that flight to the bigger cities, Rutherford said the department now allows goatees — as long as it’s neatly trimmed — a policy change he enacted last year.
“That’s a big recruitment with younger officers,” Rutherford said.
Family time is another perk. If the officer is not busy, “I’ll allow them to go to the school and eat with (their) child. If you’re working patrol, and your son’s over here playing football at the middle school, I allow you to check out over there and at least be present for a minute,” said Rutherford, who oversees 20 police officers. “That’s things that you’re not going to get at a larger agency.”
Rutherford recently hired a woman who turned down two larger agencies.
“She has roots to this community, she graduated at our local high school, she went to Basic Law Enforcement Training here, she lives in town. And she said, ‘I want to work in my community.’
“And that’s what we push,” Rutherford said. “Charlotte hires people from Kansas. … I can’t compete with that.”
He also blames the media for some of the recruitment problems.
“We’ve got to change some of this perception in the media that we’re demonized,” Rutherford said. “And I can’t fix that. I think we have to get back to respecting law enforcement.”
Alex Nickerson, a 24-year-old female officer who joined the Madison force, said she likes the variety offered by a small department.
“We deal with everything,” said Nickerson, who grew up in Madison. “You get a lot of community interaction.”
Finding qualified applicants is always a challenge, said Capt. Anthro Gamble of the High Point Police Department.
“Recent drug use knocks a lot of people out immediately,” said Gamble, noting that the department receives about 1,600 applications a year.
Still, the department only has eight vacancies out of 255 sworn positions.
“Would we like to be full, sure,” Gamble said. “I mean, what agency wouldn’t like to be full, but we’re in the single digits right now. I think that’s pretty good.”
The department will pay the most promising applicants as they go through training, Gamble said. And this year High Point changed from rotating shifts to permanent shifts, which also helps attract applicants and retain officers, he said.
“Also, we are known for how much we train. We train every other month 10½ hours,” Gamble said, adding that the state only requires 24 hours of training a year.
“We are a training agency, and I think when people hear that, that’s what makes them want to come here, stay safe and go home and be confident in what they’re doing.
“People always want to be better, so you want to go to that agency that always wants to improve. That’s why I don’t think many people leave, either.”
Overall, law enforcement agencies still struggle to represent the population they serve.
“One of the challenges still remaining today is recruiting female and minority candidates,” said Jim Gunn, who oversees Rockingham Community College’s Basic Law Enforcement Training program. “It’s still a male-dominated profession.
“I had one class with 20 males and one female, and she dropped out the first week of the class,” Gunn said. “Her fiancé didn’t want her to be involved in law enforcement.”
Rutherford said a female officer “can just about write her ticket now, because there’s so few of them.”
“Everybody’s looking for them,” he said.
One of his officers, Nickerson, was approached by a Highway Patrol trooper while at the Peace Officers Memorial in Greensboro. He handed her a business card, encouraging her to apply.
“We’re poaching each other’s people,” Rutherford said.
Madison has one Asian officer and just recently lost its sole black officer to a larger agency that pays better, Rutherford said. Two other black officers retired from the department.
“When you do get (minority) applicants, they’re going to Greensboro and Winston — more pay and more opportunity. It is really a struggle for smaller departments to hire diversity,” he said.
Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough said his department as a whole, which is 70% white, is more diverse than ever.
“I don’t take credit for that,” he said. “I’m just grateful.”
He said one of the recruiters is a black female, who goes across the state looking for candidates.
“You stand there and you say ‘Whoa, that’s not a typical recruiter,’ ” said Kimbrough, who is black. “Right away you know ... that’s an opportunity there.”