TYLER, Texas (KETK) – East Texas law enforcement is facing the same issue as restaurants, stores and warehouses across the country — a shortage in staff.

From Tyler to Longview to Nacogdoches and beyond, law enforcement agencies all over East Texas are struggling to hire and keep the staff they do have.

“This is all across the country, and matter of fact, it’s around the world,” said new Nacogdoches Chief of Police Scott Weems. “I just got back from the FBI academy and there we represented a member from each state and 37 different countries and we all had the same problem, staffing shortages.”

Gregg County Chief Deputy Craig Harrington said they used to have employee orientations every couple of months with several new hires. Now, they are only seeing about three or four.

“We’re no longer competing against the other law enforcement agencies for that pool. We’re competing against all job fields. Everybody’s needing help and they’re paying top dollar for entry level positions,” said Harrington.

The shortage goes back several years, before COVID and the help wanted signs outside of businesses.

Our local law enforcement can pinpoint the moment everything changed for them.

After Ferguson, Missouri we started seeing negative, you know, articles come out about law enforcement, more media coverage, negative media coverage,” said Harrington.

“2015 up, I mean we started seeing the things that were going on across the country and some of the unfair things that were being, you know, pushed about law enforcement and it’s just kind of snowballed, you know after the incident in Minneapolis with George Floyd,” added Sergeant for the Smith County Sheriff’s Office Larry Christian.

With protests broadcasted globally and some activists speaking out to defund the police, the word “law enforcement” became a negative one to many. 

“The younger generations live on social media, there’s a lot of negative news coming out there, some news that is completely false, and that has just done nothing but make us look bad,” said Harrington. “And then it’s to the point that nobody wants to stand up for law enforcement on the chance that they themselves would get canceled.”

It’s a cycle Harrington said he hopes will end soon, but feels fortunate to live in a place like East Texas where he said the majority of people respect law enforcement.

“We’ve got a community, we’ve got elected officials that stand behind law enforcement here and we are not nearly as bad off as some of the other agencies,” explained Harrington.

Both Smith and Gregg counties say an area suffering the most is their jails, and COVID is partly to blame.

“Jails are confined, their small spaces filled with a lot of people, so COVID hit county jails really hard in the state of Texas,” explained Harrington.

The Smith County Jail can hold up to 1,000 inmates, all of which need supervision.

“On a good day you have anywhere between 20-25 officers working supervising the inmates, not including supervisors, you have your classification department and your transport division as well,” said Smith County Sergeant Dante Keeler.

Every Texas jail must meet a ratio of one jailer per 48 inmates, doing whatever they need to accommodate that standard.

“With the shortages, we’re doing mandatory overtime,” said Keeler.

In hopes of bringing in new recruits and maintaining employees, local leaders raised the pay for detention officers to more than $43,000 a year.

It’s something not every county has the luxury of doing.

“This is a very pro-law enforcement community, conservative community that we have here. We’re competing very well now with other police agencies because of the commissioners and their involvement with the law enforcement in Smith County, so things are looking up for us,” Christian said.

Even with the higher pay, it takes a special type of person to do the job, especially when other fields are paying equal if not better.

“Let’s face it, in Gregg County we’ve got two large warehouses here: Dollar General and Gap that are paying the same wage as a detention officer,” said Harrington, “so if you don’t have that servant’s heart, why go to work in a job field where you’re gonna get cussed at, screamed at, yelled at, get negative media coverage, get feces and urine thrown at you when you can go and move boxes around for the same salary and sometimes better benefits?”

For those with a calling in law enforcement, Sergeant Larry Christian says a detention officer is a great place to start.

“We want them to start their career in law enforcement in the Smith County Jail because they can gain invaluable experience in a controlled environment that’s gonna pay great dividends down the road for them,” added Christian.

When it comes to recruiting, agencies are pulling out all the stops to get their staff numbers up, and it’s making a difference.

“We’re actually starting to improve a little bit. I wouldn’t say we’re out of the woods yet. We’ve got a long way to go,” said Harrington.

What also helps is hiring events like one most recently held in Downtown Tyler in October.

“We can talk to them in a less sterile environment, if you will, and talk to them about what we have to offer,” said Christian.

Some agencies believe the biggest improvements in staffing will come with more positive media attention.

“Changing the negative culture around law enforcement and highlighting all the good that we do versus the bad and that will bring people in,” explained Harrington.

The ones who do the job said helping others is a passion that will stick with them for life.

“After 38 years in law enforcement, I’m still proud of the position that I hold,” Christian said.

If you’re interested in a law enforcement position in East Texas, here are some resources: