May 30—'Images of civil unrest and troubled reports in national media have framed law enforcement in a negative way over the past year; a way that seems jarring and far removed from the close-knit connection between community and law enforcement that Cullman County enjoys.
But even though those stories have unfolded seemingly far from home, their imagery still plays out on TV screens and social media, and still makes its way into local households. While few (if any) lawmakers in Alabama would call for defunding police or scaling back enforcement, people here — including young people looking for a career — have seen that narrative play out in dramatic fashion elsewhere.
Meanwhile, local law enforcement continues to face the same kind of hiring challenges that made recruitment a tough sell — even before the chaotic media events of 2020. So what can it do to entice people to sign up for a career?
For one thing, says sheriff Matt Gentry, be straightforward about the pros and cons of the job — while stressing that it's an immensely rewarding career for the right person...and for those with the long-term patience to let opportunities appear.
"It's a very demanding job with low pay and long hours, and you have to work weekends and holidays." Gentry says with a good-humored chuckle; one borne from the understanding of someone who's lived through the job's highs and lows.
"But what we tell young men and women who are recruited is this: If you will stay planted and develop a career here, it is very rewarding. You get to help people, and the farther down that path you go, the more you will see things begin to open up into the career it can become. One of the greatest things that we can do in life is being a servant. And very often, once someone starts down the path, they begin to realize just how rewarding all of it can be."
Once they reach mid-career and begin to identify their areas of specialty, pay can open up significantly for sheriff's deputies and police officers. But, as Gentry points out, starting pay is low for new recruits. "The pay range in the beginning is from $29,000 to $35,000, depending on whether you're starting in the jail or on patrol," he says.
At the sheriff's office, a new hire with no background experience or prior law enforcement qualifications can expect to earn near the lower end of that range during the first year on the job, with education and military incentives potentially boosting the figure slightly. Inexperienced new hires typically start out either on jail duty or in dispatch, while attending one of Alabama's training academies to obtain APOSTC (Alabama Peace Officers' Standards and Training Commission) certification.
"Once they graduate from the academy, that's when they start their program for field training for patrol, and start working their way up," says Gentry. "There's also training here in-house for those who have been hired on, and it's constant. This is not the kind of work where you can learn it all in six months or in a year. No matter where you are in your career, in fact, you're always learning. New hires are part of that ongoing cycle, and they have to continually educate themselves and be able to adapt to changes."
It's not for everyone, but Gentry is quick to point out that a long-term career in law enforcement does have a way of retaining people who have a special heart for service.
"We tell people that, in the early going, there will be difficult times. No matter how far you go in your career, you will face difficult periods and challenges. But a lot of our men and women; people who started out new to law enforcement, do overcome those challenges. And when they do, they realize how rewarding a career this really is."