Last summer, I was honored and fortunate to give the commencement speech for the police academy graduation at West Shore Community College. While giving my speech, I noticed the small size of the graduating class. There were a total of seven graduates, the smallest amount to ever graduated from the program.

In this edition of Sheriff's Corner, I discuss the declining interest of law enforcement as a career choice and the challenges we face with this issue here in Lake County.

In the last decade, the number of individuals wanting to get into law enforcement has been rapidly declining. I remember in the early '90s, when there was an opening for any department, you would have hundreds of applicants. This is a far cry from current reality.

We are now in a climate of hiring where job offers are being made before individuals graduate. In the past, this would have been considered unusual. Here in Lake County, two of the latest road deputies that I hired were offered jobs from us before graduation.

As the sheriff, this means that sometimes I feel like a sports agent when it comes to recruiting. Given the reduced numbers of applicants, the field is highly competitive. With the current full-time road deputy position that is available, I only had four individuals apply, which means only two of them moved on to the interview stage.

This is not only a local issue, but is happening all over the nation. Larger departments have had to switch their employment practices to hiring individuals who have no experience, opting to hire the best applicants and sending them to a police academy.

Why is this? I would say this comes down to several factors. Some of them are national issues, such as the negative portrayal of the police in the media and the mindset of younger people wanting to do non-public service jobs that pay more. Then there is, in our particular situation, the rural nature of our community.

Media portrayal

Police these days live under the limelight.

A day doesn't go by that you don't see a story with the police being portrayed in a negative way. It seems any positive police story is overshadowed by a video clip about some encounter that was unfavorable.

I can share with you, from firsthand experience, having been in several news stories myself, that the reported version of the story was different than what actually happened. That doesn't change the opinion of those who see the story, take it as fact and draw a conclusion.

People always ask me what would I have done in that same situation. I tell them, I wasn't there, so I can't tell you what I would have done, because I understand that the presented story falls well short of the actual event.

Generally speaking, most individuals don't realize that being a peace officer requires a great deal of multi-tasking. During every shift, you need the skills of a counselor, parenting coach, mediator and a peacemaker. It isn't the glamorous, hero-like role that is portrayed on TV shows such as "Cops" and "Live PD." Generally, you deal with citizens during one of the most traumatic situations they have even been in, or when they are emotionally fired up about the events at hand.

Heightened emotional states leads to an increase in adrenaline for the individuals involved, and as a result, officers are put in positions where they must make quick decisions. Oftentimes, they don't know all of the facts, or have incorrect facts that were only realized when arriving on scene.

They make these decisions hoping to help the greatest number of people and preserving lives. Yet, the public gets frustrated with decisions these officers are making under great amounts of stress when timing is of the essence.

In addition, the public can also get frustrated with the aftermath of an incident. Those of us in law enforcement would love for each and every encounter result in a positive outcome, however, ultimately, that decision is beyond our control.

The prosecutor is the chief law enforcement official who has to decide on the case progression. We can make a report and issue a citation, but that is where our part generally ends.

What is our responsibility is to investigate a complaint, pursue all avenues thoroughly and make sure we provide the prosecutor with the evidence needed to move forward. A person can be charged, charges can be later dropped and the person can to a lesser charge. But who usually gets the blame when a case doesn't go the way the public would like it to? The cops.

The new mindset

Law enforcement, like many other public service jobs, competes with many other jobs that have better pay and are less stressful.

In society these days, most people would like to put in their 40 hours and leave at the the end of their shift. In law enforcement, this is not the norm.

It is not uncommon to take a complaint and spend time on a crime scene or traumatic car crash that requires you to stay long after your shift. You may even get called in on your day off.

Back in the day, people would gobble up any extra overtime or work an additional shift. That is not the common mindset for those entering the workforce these days. Overtime and extra shifts means time away from their family or having to break plans.

In addition to the long hours — and many times thankless hours on the job — law enforcement officers deal with many traumatic situations and can be exposed to stuff that most others would not see. This can take a toll of the physical and emotional well-being of anyone. It also helps explain the higher burnout rate and lack of interest in law enforcement in recent years.

The No. 1 question asked by most academy graduates on their selection to their department is, "How does the community feel about the cops on where that department is located?"

This is a driving factor in whether or not a law enforcement job is desirable. The community perception can be altered through building relationships, which needs to happen in many communities.

As officers, we need to strive to go out, meet the community and establish relationships beyond the official interactions of a complaint or traffic citation. In addition, transparency with the community about the challenges faced and policing procedures can help build more positive relationships as well.

Rural community

I am very fortunate to have the deputies that I have who have chosen to work for the Lake County Sheriff's Office. As a rural community, we are like no other.

We have a population that includes those who have spent their life here, but also a large amount of people who have retired here and are considered transplants to the area. This is not uncommon in other communities, but the percentage is quite large when it comes to Lake County.

Being a transplant from Kalamazoo, I myself did not realize just how many in Lake County are like myself until I became sheriff.

Most younger recruits seem to steer more toward metropolitan areas or places closer to where they grew up. The metropolitan aspect is a draw because of the benefits and the perceived "action" that those areas are billed to have.

Those who strive to be closer to where they grew up do so because they know their hometown and the surrounding areas. Because of these reasons and more, drawing numerous applicants to an area like Lake County can be challenging. We have been fortunate to draw the talent that we have and the quality of applicants and officers makes us very fortunate.

The reality of retainment

Quoting from another article: "Since 2013, the number of full-time sworn officers has dropped by about 23,000 — one of the biggest dips since the 1990s, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which conducts the study every four years. There are now roughly 700,000 officers in the U.S., down from 724,000 in 2013. The average number of full-time sworn officers per 1,000 U.S. residents decreased from 2.42 in 1997 to 2.17 in 2016 (down 11 percent)."

As you can see, the FBI suffers similar recruiting challenges, with special agent applicants plummeting from 68,500 in 2009 to 11,500 last year.

More officers are also leaving the profession between 1-5 years on the job and experienced police officers are retiring at a faster rate than ever before, further depleting the ranks.

Again, this echos many public service jobs, but should be alarming and should cause us as a whole to question what we can do to restore the desirability of the job.

As one county commissioner stated recently at a board meeting, "Lake County has always been a turnover department." This basically says that no one sticks around.

I don't entirely agree with this statement. I believe we could be doing more to retain our officers.

Many of the programs that I have initiated since taking office have been restructuring the department, raising the standard of training, increasing accountability, expanding vehicle availability, increasing officer appreciation and a new job focus that is confirmed by my mission statement of serving with honor, integrity and dedication.

That, in short, means we have a service to provide, and we will provide the community with that service. By making these changes, we have seen positive changes within our department, and we will continue to do more to improve the conditions within Lake County.

The bottom line

As the only law enforcement agency in Lake County, we are responsible to answer your complaints and any other calls for service. This is unique from other counties, which usually have other agencies, like local police departments, that also respond to calls.

On any given day, generally, we have two deputies that cover the whole county. We have one detective, as well as a sergeant for recreational enforcement. We also have part-time deputies for marine patrol and recreational enforcement on the weekends.

Since May 2019, we are also fortunate to have assistance from the Michigan State Police, who will provide a trooper a few days a week. This was not a factor for a couple of years from MSP, due to shortages and retirements. We furthermore have the assistance from the Michigan DNR and the U.S. Forest Service.

While many of these arrangements are unique to Lake County, we continue to provide the best service possible to all of residents and we will continue to do our part to make employment as a law enforcement officer a positive and desirable position within our community.

This information is provided to you for clarification on specific laws, and not legal advice. This is not to be construed as a personal opinion, agreement or disagreement of any specific law.

If you have any questions on any specific topic, you can always email me your questions to rmartin@co.lake.mi.us.

As always, it is a honor serving and working for all of you who live, visit and work in Lake County. Working together, we can make a difference.