Despite various reports of police officer shortages around the country, Indiana seems to be taking less of a hit than other states. But those numbers may be misleading.
The Indiana Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) uses an interactive video during the last week of training for prospective officers.
Officers – and even the occasional journalist -- are faced with situations that may require firing a weapon and must decide what to do. And since it’s part of firearms training, the main decision is whether to shoot.
That decision has been central to the political climate around law enforcement in recent years. Since the events of Ferguson, Missouri, where a white police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, law enforcement has received extra scrutiny.
Indiana State Police Sergeant Anthony Emery says he’s heard it on recruiting trips.
“I’ve personally spoke to some folks at career fairs, and job fairs, and asking them if they have an interest in law enforcement," Emery says. "And a lot of the answers that I’m getting from these potential applicants is, ‘It’s just not worth everything I’m seeing on television to come in there for $40,000 a year.’”
The numbers bear it out: the ISP received one-third the number of applications this year that it did four years ago.
Emery says other factors, such as low unemployment rates and a lack of regular pay raises for officers can also add to the steady decline of recruitment numbers.
Cory Gruss, a veteran and Tippecanoe County Sheriff’s Deputy, says for him, the Academy meant a balance of service and family.
“With the separation with the deployments and fields, me and my wife didn’t really get to see each other," Gruss says. "So, I had to – chose – to get out so I can be with her. And I still wanted to serve, so police officer was the best situation for me.”
Despite the downward trend in applicants, Capt. David Younce, an instructor at the academy, says the size of graduating classes has stayed constant over the years, thanks in part to a significant number of military veterans applying to be cops.
Younce says more minority and female officers are now attending the Academy than did in the past, which he says helps drive home lessons taught about community policing.
“When you do have a jurisdiction of multiple customs and cultures, then you need to get busy and find out: O.K., what are the values of these cultures?" Younce says. "You don’t have to agree with them, but you do have to at least respect them for what they are.”
Emery says the ISP tries to match the demographics of the state population, but still faces a severe lack of female officers. He says the key to keeping numbers up is to push the positive aspects of the job.
But National Sheriffs’ Association executive director Jonathan Thompson says some departments in the Midwest have been put in a desperate position to fill officer shortages – and that may mean lowering standards for who’s accepted into training programs.
“A number of law enforcement leaders have told me, and in particular one said to me, ‘We’re interviewing people now for positions we never even would have responded to previously.’ And that’s troubling," Thompson says.
And that may reflect the intersection of the national headlines and academy training: the decision whether to fire a service weapon, and the extra scrutiny it now brings to cops.
Cory Gruss, fellow Tippecanoe County Deputy Jacob Gutierrez and Lafayette Police officer Sam Gawaluck say they’ve followed the added attention given to police in the wake of Ferguson and other high-profile police violence incidents.
Gutierrez and Gruss say what they see on the news has only made them want to become a police officer more. But Gawaluck says it didn’t influence his decision.
“I think, more than anything, it made me want to be an officer more. Protecting everyone – that would be my part,” Gutierrez says.
“I agree with Jake," Gruss says, "It actually encouraged me to go with police officer because the world’s looking at police officers really bad right now and I want to show the community that there’s more good than bad.”
“Didn’t change my opinion yes or no, it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, regardless of what the climate was," Gawaluck says. "If I could be that one officer that maybe sparks the gunpowder for good, then more to it.”
All three officers graduated from the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy in late October in a class of 125.