More than 200 officers work in local law enforcement departments in Lowndes and Oktibbeha counties.
Sheriffs’ offices in both communities are fully staffed, while police chiefs in Starkville and Columbus said they’re working to hire more officers.
Columbus Police Department has had some trouble increasing its manpower, but Chief Oscar Lewis said he thinks that may be turning around.
CPD has about 51 officers, Lewis said, and the city council has approved the department to hire up to 77 officers.
Lewis said the department’s low numbers haven’t hurt its ability to carry out its mission.
“I think these guys are working more efficiently now, even though the numbers are down, than they have in a long while,” he said. “Things are going well.”
Lewis said CPD is receiving applications, but hiring an officer can be a long process — especially for applicants with no prior experience who have to go through physical and written tests, evaluations and background checks.
“It used to be so easy to hire an officer,” he said. “We’re seeing it can be hard both ways with applicants. Our numbers are down as far as applicants submitting, but even for the few that do put in, there are some steps they have to go through.”
Still, for all the difficulty, CPD is making progress. The city swore in six new officers at the Aug. 16 city council meeting, and the council gave Lewis permission to hire two more, pending physicals.
“Recruiting, across the nation, that’s difficult,” Lewis continued. “It’s an issue for departments across the nation. The thing about it is it’s not the highest-paid profession and things going on across the nation have shed some negative light on the profession.”
Lewis said he’s confident in the officers he already has, adding CPD will continue to improve in recruiting.
“I’m encouraged, even though things look bleak,” he said. “I don’t know how else to say it, but I think God is going to provide everything else we need. I’m encouraged by the whole process. It’s just going to take time.”
Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office
The fully-staffed Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office has 72 officers in its enforcement division, with 50 full-time and 22 part-time, said Chief Deputy Marc Miley.
Miley said LCSO generally has low turnover, and that’s a benefit that allows the department to have seasoned deputies who know their communities.
He said it also reduces the amount of time LCSO has to use to focus on training new deputies.
“I can hire 10 people, but that’s still 10 people who have to be trained,” he said. “Even if they come already as a certified officer through the state, they have to know how the sheriff’s office operates. They have to know the community. They have to know the people. They have to know the roads.”
LCSO is working fine with the number of deputies it has, Miley said, though it could always use more. He said the department has deputies stationed at each Lowndes County School District campus and at the Golden Triangle Regional Airport.
Miley said recruiting hasn’t been much of a challenge for LCSO, and he hopes that things remain that way.
“So far, we’ve been able to get people in,” he said. “There’s people wanting to come to work all the time. We’ve been able to hire a bunch of good people.”
Starkville Police Department
Starkville Police Chief Frank Nichols said his department is in good shape, manpower-wise.
He said SPD is down four officers after two resigned, his assistant chief retired and one officer deployed for military service to Afghanistan and will need a temporary replacement.
SPD is budgeted for 62 officers, including two part-time officers who help with court. Nichols said he has 58 total officers filling those roster spots.
That number is fine for the summer months, he said, but he needs more officers, especially when Mississippi State University students are in town. SPD’s call volume spikes when the students return, he said, specifically for traffic calls. He added MSU’s home football games can be a challenge.
“I need my numbers up during football season in the fall,” he said. “Sixty is where we are but we need about 70.
“The number one problem with football is traffic,” Nichols continued. “We go from a city of 25,000 to more than 100,000 people. A lot of our roadways are not built for that amount of traffic. That’s a challenge in and of itself.”
It’s not unusual to have 30 officers working on a game day, Nichols said, as SPD will man every intersection on Highway 12 from campus to the Highway 25 bypass on the other side of town.
Nichols said he should be able to fill the positions. About 40 people applied for jobs during SPD’s last round of hiring.
“It’s not the recruiting that’s hurting us,” Nichols said. “It’s retention. This job isn’t for everyone, and sometimes people find that out in that three-year window after they get hired.”
Nichols said SPD also hires a lot of MSU graduates. He said they’ll start in the department, get a few years of experience, then move on. Many, he said, move out of state or to federal jobs.
SPD’s goal in hiring, he said, is to find officers who have some ties to Starkville and may want to remain in the community for four or five years.
Oktibbeha County Sheriff’s Department
Oktibbeha County Sheriff Steve Gladney said his department recently had to replace two deputies who retired, but has since returned to full strength. OCSD has 28 officers.
“We’ve lost some, naturally,” he said. “People move on maybe to better jobs or whatever different reason. We haven’t had a problem with that much. We had two retire this year, so we’re just filling in some slots.”
Gladney said staffing levels for the department have held steady since Oktibbeha County supervisors let him add two more deputies shortly after his election in 2012.
He said being a full staff is helpful, especially if a deputy is out or has to can’t work for some reason. He said it also allows more flexibility in getting extra officers on shift during busy weekends and football weekends.
“It’s a huge advantage for us,” he said. “After a game, we have posts where we have to redirect traffic, but we still have to respond to calls that we get too.”
The starting annual salary for a non-certified CPD officer is $31,915. Once an officer completes academy training and becomes certified, minimum pay is $35,700. In Starkville, non-certified starting pay is $33,000 and $35,000 for a certified officer.
Base salaries for sheriff’s deputies in both Lowndes and Oktibbeha counties are about $35,000.
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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