With National Police Week underway, Patrick County Sheriff Dan Smith is hopeful the tide will turn and more young people will pursue careers in law enforcement.
The week runs through May 19, with May 15 recognized as National Peace Officer Memorial Day to honor those killed in the line of duty, Smith said.
According to the National Law Enforcement Officer Fund website, 21,541 law enforcement officers have been killed in the line of duty since record keeping began in the early nineteenth century.
Currently, an estimated 800,000 law enforcement professionals nationwide are called on to police more than 325 million Americans, according to Smith, who noted that an average of 151 officers are killed each year.
“Roughly a quarter of one percent of the country’s population stands guard every second of every day to serve and protect all of us,” Smith said. “That’s about as efficient as it gets.”
But, he noted “we are not 800,000 perfect human beings, we are going to make mistakes. We also are going to hold ourselves accountable.”
Unfortunately, “the brand of this profession has been severely damaged over the past five years,” Smith said, and added that once every three days, an officer is killed somewhere in America.
Recently, two sheriff’s deputies in Florida were shot to death while eating a meal on duty, Smith said. “That county in rural Florida was the same size as Patrick County, those deputies were killed because they wore a badge, and for no other reason,” he said.
Increasing hatred of law enforcement has been fueled in recent years, and Smith said he is worried about the future of law enforcement in America, and believes that many areas of the country are just a few years away from not being able to answer calls for service, particularly in rural areas.
“There has been a 70 percent decline in law enforcement applications nationwide in the past five years,” Smith said. “We have been vilified to the highest level, and many young people do not see this as an honorable profession anymore.
Additionally, “the job is certainly not getting any safer,” he said.
Other factors contributing to the decline of interest includes salary, according to Smith, who noted that pay, especially in most rural localities, is the lowest it has ever been when compared to average income.
“Rural localities are often the most dangerous areas to work in because officers are always alone, and when your salary qualifies you for government assistance,” the profession doesn’t garner much, if any, interest, Smith said.
Those and other factors have created the “perfect storm” in trying to recruit and retain officers, with many agencies being more than 30 percent low on available, responding officers, he said. There also is a local impact, according to Smith, who added his office use to receive more than 80 applications for one opening. Now, as few as 12 applications are received for multiple openings.
There is one upside in terms of local support.
“We have not seen a decline in support from the community,” Smith said. “In fact, you can’t ask for better folks to serve than those right here in Patrick County. We live in the best place you could possibly live.”
Smith hopes the focus on law enforcement throughout the week will create resurgence in young people who want to pursue a career in law enforcement.
“I challenge anyone out there to serve their fellow man, come and join the law enforcement family. Be a part of something much greater than yourself,” Smith said. Law enforcement “is an honorable profession.”