With dozens of vacancies across different local agencies, Alachua County has not been immune to national law enforcement recruitment challenges.
As local law enforcement applicant pools dwindle, agencies in Alachua County are launching new efforts to combat recruiting struggles and strengthen their relationship with the community.
The Alachua County Sheriff’s Office has roughly 40 vacancies for sworn-in positions, which hovers around the average number of vacancies for county sheriff’s offices in North-Central Florida, according to Alachua County Sheriff’s Office’s Capt. Chris Sims.
Sims, who has served in local law enforcement for 18 years, attributes the uptick in vacancies to increased resignation, low salaries, the dangerous nature of policing, and the negative media depictions and political climate surrounding law enforcement.
“You are going to be away from home to protect a community that in the eyes of what you may see through social media or mainstream media, you don’t feel appreciates you,” he said.
However, the sheriff’s office is still receiving a consistent number of applications, Sims said.
“We’re getting a lot of applicants,” he said. “But from the start of their application, until the start of making them a viable deputy sheriff in your community with all of the proper training to do the job the correct way, one year.”
To combat issues with low salaries, Alachua County Sheriff Clovis Watson Jr. has been trying to raise the minimum salary for deputy sheriffs to $50,000, Sims said. In 2022, Watson got a roughly $5,000 salary increase approved by county officials.
“Sheriff Watson got the largest raise that I have known of in my 18 years at the Alachua County Sheriff’s office last year,” he said. “We were at about $41,000 a year, $42,000 a year. Now we’re at $47,000.”
Outside of raising pay, Sims said the office is also attending every possible local career-related event to scout for potential applicants.
“Every time that we are in the public is an opportunity to continually engage the community,” he said.
The Sheriff’s Office began offering a virtual career fair in 2022 to engage with younger generations that increasingly rely on virtual options for job recruiting, like Zoom.
To build trust between the Sheriff’s Office and the community, Sims has also attended youth dialogue sessions organized by the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding, which he said
allows him and other members of law enforcement to bond with younger community members who may have negative perceptions of their field.
“It helps to allow people a comfortable, respectful way to voice their opinion and then us to learn about one another and find commonality,” he said.
Gainesville Police Department Advisory Council Chair Norb Dunkel, who seeks to strengthen communication between the community and GPD, is also worried about the number of vacancies within local law enforcement agencies, specifically GPD, he said.
“They are budgeted for 233 sworn officers and 99 civilian positions,” he said. “There are currently 40 officer vacancies out of that 233, and there are currently seven in the police academy.”
GPD vacancies hovered around 10 roughly a decade ago, Dunkel said.
Other local agencies including the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office and the Highway Patrol are also down sworn officers, he said.
Like Sims, Dunkel listed the nature of policing and negative depictions of law enforcement officers in the media as having a negative influence on the applicant pool.
“Not everybody wants to stand in a position where it’s a dangerous situation,” he said.
Dunkel said GPD has started participating in career service fairs, attending dialogue sessions at colleges and offering financial assistance for police academy tuition fees to recruit more officers. Dunkel believes GPD’s shift toward more community-oriented policing is a step in the right direction.
“I really like the fact that they’re getting to career days,” he said. “They’re getting to the citizens of the community in a way that perhaps they hadn’t before.”
Organizer for local collective Florida Prisoner Solidarity August Vincentts said Gainesville’s law enforcement recruitment struggles come as no shock, given the recent controversies surrounding GPD. For instance, the incident where the Gainesville resident Terrell Bradley lost his eye after being attacked by a GPD k-9 in July 2022.
Vincentts also suggests that instead of hiring more officers, the county should allocate funds towards projects that address the challenges faced by community members that could potentially lead them to commit crimes, they said.
“If we can take measures to reinforce healthy relationships among our communities, we’ll see less and less need for police,” they said. “That’s the main goal is to reduce police interactions with community members.”