How law enforcement agencies are recruiting future officers in a difficult climate

The I-TEAM takes a closer look at how Jacksonville-area agencies are competing against each other for the best applicants

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Small towns and big cities alike are struggling to recruit and retain law enforcement officers amid national controversy over the police profession. Many veteran officers are retiring, leaving agencies in a bidding war for qualified candidates — as they try to hire the next generation to protect and serve.

With Florida becoming the fastest-growing state in the country, the state needs more officers than ever before, so the News4JAX I-TEAM took a closer look at how some local agencies are competing against each other for the best applicants.

In Nassau County, Deputy Donnie Phillips is one of the newest sheriff’s deputies. He started in August and now patrols on his own.

“Why are you doing this job?” the I-TEAM asked.

“Just a childhood dream. It’s something I was wanting to do growing up,” he answered.

Phillips, a Coast Guard veteran, says he knows it’s a difficult climate right now, but he says he’s dedicated to the job and allowed the I-TEAM to ride along with him during one of his patrols. He told us Nassau County attracted him partly because they paid for his time at the police academy.

“What was it like to get that sponsorship?” we asked.

“It was a great feeling. There are a lot of people that applied for it, and out of all the people that applied, they only chose 15 of us, and I was one of those lucky 15 people that got accepted, so it was a great opportunity,” Phillips replied.

Nassau County Deputy Donnie Phillips allowed the I-TEAM to ride along with him during one of his patrols. (Copyright 2023 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

Nassau County Sheriff Bill Leeper says it’s important for his force to mirror the community it serves.

“We have all walks of life in our community. We have white males, white females, Black males, Black females, Hispanic males, Hispanic females, Asian, the whole area. So we want to reflect that,” he explained.

“Is that difficult to find? People from all different backgrounds?” we asked Leeper.

“It is difficult sometimes because of the recent issues around the country, trying to get young people involved wanting to become a law enforcement officer or getting involved in a law enforcement profession is a struggle,” he said.

Leeper is in his 46th year in law enforcement and tells us, with Nassau County being the fourth fastest growing county in Florida, he has never seen anything like this as his agency tries to keep up with a population boom.

With civil unrest nationally amid allegations of police brutality, misconduct and racism, people wearing a badge are under the microscope — which means agencies must work harder to vet their candidates.

“We have to be not only police officers. We have to be social workers; we have to be psychiatrists; we have to be a lot of things. But the main thing we can do, we need to make sure that our community is safe,” Leeper said.

The Nassau County Sheriff’s Office has invested heavily in an online recruitment video.

“A destination beach safe for the whole family,” says one person in the video.

“Public land for the outdoor enthusiast,” says another person in the video.

The nearly 5-minute video is a montage of different places within the county highlighting many attributes the area has to offer — from outdoor fun to faith to community. It also features Leeper and his deputies and staff highlighting pay and benefits — pointing out that Florida has no state income tax.

The agency, however, is facing stiff competition as police departments and sheriff’s offices across the state and around the county put time and effort into appealing to law enforcement candidates in different ways.

For example, the Coral Springs Police Department in South Florida is appealing to compassion, family and heroism in its recruitment video.

“Law enforcement is more than just a job,” the announcer in the video begins. “If you are a motivated, compassionate, trustworthy person who strives to provide solutions to problems, if you find satisfaction in doing what is right and protecting others, then law enforcement is the right path for you.”

In Texas, the Fort Worth Police Department is appealing to law enforcement candidates through humor.

“Are you looking for a new job? Are you ready to try something new that will make a difference in doing something really great? Well, come join us at the Fort Worth Police Department,” says “Officer Big B” in the video.

He appears to be on a car lot, with graphics on the screen that resemble an old-school car commercial, and he goes on to point out different police-issued vehicles that fit the different units with the agency.

The Fond du Lac Police Department in Wisconsin is also using humor to appeal to candidates.

“Oh, and I almost forgot, we have a K-9 unit!” says an officer wearing a dog-bite training suit just before a K-9 latches on to his arm in the video.

While some law enforcement agencies are tying some out-of-the-box ways — including humor — to appeal to get candidates and get them to apply, the situation is no laughing matter.

According to the Police Executive Research Forum, a 2022 survey of law enforcement leaders found that about 75% of agencies have seen a decrease in applications, and more than 50% reported having fewer officers today than they did four or five years ago.

“What’s it like being a law enforcement officer in America right now?” we asked Britny Blaz with the Nassau County Sheriff’s Office.

People not liking us,” she said. “We don’t really have that problem in this county. We are very pro-law enforcement in Nassau, and mostly everybody loves us here. But there are a lot of people that don’t like us and automatically think that we’re bad, and you know, shouldn’t be here.”

In Jacksonville Beach, officers patrol to protect a relatively small population of 24,000 residents with a large number of visitors.

“Our strategic plan places a priority on public safety and our administration values every employee,” the Jacksonville Beach Police Department’s recruitment video begins. “When you work here, you’re not just a patrolman. You know, you have to wear several hats,” an officer says within a montage of different videos showing officers performing a wide range of duties.

Officer Anthony Deleo joined the police department after graduating from Florida State University.

“I love just helping the community — whether it’s keeping bad guys off the street, helping a little kid fix a flat tire on a bicycle,” he said.

And Officer Blake Noble switched from being a mechanic to wearing a badge.

“You know, as a kid growing up, my dad and I. we would always watch ‘Cops’ on TV,” he said.

In the city of Jacksonville, with more than 3,000 police and correctional officers, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office is the largest in North Florida. They must hire more officers than anyone else locally to keep the force fully staffed.

Sheriff T.K. Waters is hoping a $10,000 signing bonus for corrections officers brings more quality applicants.

In a video posted on social media, Waters shares his personal story of why he made law enforcement his career and invites others to do the same.

“This decision singlehandedly shaped the course of my life,” Waters says in the recruitment video.

The I-TEAM spoke to Waters about recruitment efforts, and he says it has been hard at times.

“The societal change taking place, you see what you see in different places across the country. That may affect us some, but we haven’t seen any massive effects,” Waters said. “Our agency is going to continue to thrive and we’re going to do different things to make sure that we continue to recruit,” he said.

To stay competitive, agencies like JSO are raising salaries. For example, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement:

  • The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office paid $41,100 in 2019 and now offers $51,528.
  • The Nassau County Sheriff’s Office started its deputies at $39,809 in 2019. Now, the entry-level pay is $51,000.
  • The Jacksonville Beach Police Department raised its pay from $ 41,787 in 2019 to $50,024.00 today.

Agencies all offer different incentives like insurance, shorter work weeks, overtime opportunities and take-home cars.

To sweeten the deal statewide, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently approved a $5,000 signing bonus for new law enforcement officers and veteran officers coming from other states. DeSantis announced Wednesday that 1,400 bonuses have been issued to newly employed law enforcement recruits in Florida.

Florida has averaged 2,700 new police officers each year over the last five years, and with Florida being the fastest-growing state, that number is expected to grow.

About the Authors:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.