(WSPA) – Staffing shortfalls that have hit industries across South Carolina have taken a toll on some of the state’s most critical resources.
Law enforcement agencies have struggled with fewer recruits and departing veterans and, in the last year, that shortage has gotten substantially worse for many Upstate agencies.
Cherokee County deputy Andrew Lyons says he was led to the law while serving in the Navy. The sailor almost died, he said, and remembers how closely one man stood by his side.
“The one person who was always by my bed was the chaplain. They were always by my side,” Lyons said.
That devotion changed Lyons’ life. It made him more receptive to divine inspiration as a civilian.
Despite a college degree in biomechanics, Lyons pursued a career as a deputy.
“I felt called by God to go in law enforcement and we took a huge financial hit, and with prayer and a lot of thought it worked,” Lyons said.
That decision must have felt like a Godsend to Lyon’s boss, Cherokee County Sheriff Steve Mueller.
Muller is always recruiting, training and struggling to retain the staff he needs.
“Absolutely, it is getting more and more difficult to recruit what I consider high caliber recruits for this profession,” Mueller said. “When I applied and got into law enforcement there were literally hundreds of applicants who applied for the job. Today we would do good to find 10 candidates to interview.”
In Oconee County, Furman Matheson, just 21 years old, is the newest deputy in the county.
He’s another, increasingly rare, young man who felt driven to wear a badge. For him, public service is a family business.
“My dad was in [law enforcement], my grandma she was in, she was on rescue squad, and granddad was in the fire department. That’s always been what I’ve been around,” Matheson said.
Just like his Upstate counterparts, the sheriff in Oconee County feels lucky to find such an eager new hire.
In fact, Sheriff Mike Crenshaw said the staffing problem in Oconee County is the worst it’s ever been.
“I still got about five, six openings out of about 115 deputies, but I never had this many at one time,” Crenshaw said. “It used to be very competitive. Used to be someone had to retire, almost pass away, to go to get a job in law enforcement. That’s simply not the case anymore.”
7News measured the severity of the issue by contacting each sheriff’s office and each of the largest cities in the Upstate. All the sheriffs, except Laurens County, participated.
There were a handful, like Abbeville County and the Greenville Police that said they had zero current openings.
Greenville County had 28 openings for sworn officers out of 537 positions. The agency said the issue had actually improved over the previous year.
In most cases, however, there was a clear trend. Leading to 74 open positions for deputies in the 8 counties who responded to the 7News inquiry.
“We never recruited up until a couple of years ago we’ve had to change our mindset,” Crenshaw said.
“I can remember the days when you had one or two openings a year and now we’re filling sometimes one or two openings a quarter,” said Mueller.
The real issue isn’t just the openings, it’s the lack of experience. The South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy shows veteran officers are leaving the profession at an accelerated rate.
Their data shows 784 sworn officers became “inactive” in the 2018-2019 fiscal year. The following year there were 783. In the last year, the 2020-2021 fiscal year, the number of officers quitting the profession jumped 50% to 1157.
The academy said half of officers who finish the training program there will leave the profession within 5 years on the job.
In smaller counties, like Cherokee, Oconee and Pickens, more experience officers will often leave for bigger agencies with bigger budgets.
“I don’t think we’re gonna recover from this over the next year. I think it’s going to take quite a while to recover just due to the large number of veteran officers that have left the profession already,” Mueller said.
Police chiefs and sheriffs had a lot of answers about why they’re seeing this lack of interest in their profession.
Nearly all suggested there has been more public pressure, and negative coverage, that’s put police work in a bad light. But the biggest factor appears to be economic.
With so many open jobs in the private sector, the high quality applicants, with college degrees have a number of higher paying opportunities.
Several sheriffs said they have full-time deputies on public assistance.
They do get good state benefits, but as Sheriff Crenshaw put it, “you can’t eat benefits.”