Spencer Police officer departures prompt agreement with sheriff, letter from state organization

Published 12:10 am Sunday, November 7, 2021

SPENCER — Spencer is down one-third of its police officers and is receiving statewide attention as it tries to address the new shortage.

The town budgeted for 14 police officers this fiscal year, which started in July. At the end of August, Spencer’s Police Department was one officer short, but now the town is down to 10 officers. After Nov. 12, it will be down to nine; one person will transition to a part-time reserve officer. One sergeant position needs to be filled.

Spencer Police Chief Mike James said the town has seen significant turnover in the past. During one five-year period, 17 officers left the department, James said. He said most officers leave for higher pay or greater opportunity for advancement.

“In my view, recruitment is difficult because officers today, nationwide, feel unappreciated,” James said.

James also noted hiring in the field is competitive and other agencies also raise pay as Spencer does the same. Starting pay for an officer in Spencer is $37,544.

James said he sent recruitment letters to all basic law enforcement training directors in the state as well as letters to colleges and universities. He’s also explored using recruiting websites. James said he wants people to know the town is looking for new officers.

To cover the shortage while the town tries to get more officers, the Spencer Board of Aldermen during its Tuesday meeting will consider authorizing an agreement with Rowan County Sheriff’s Office. Rowan County commissioners have already approved an agreement.

The Spencer agreement includes paying the county $50 per hour of service to cover all the costs of fielding a deputy including salary, benefits and equipment. Deputies working in Spencer would be under the command of Spencer Police Department leadership.

The shortage got the attention of the North Carolina Fraternal Order of Police, which sent a letter to Spencer officials and the Post questioning the town’s hiring practices for police officers based on a job posting.

The NCFOP has more than 6,000 member officers, and the national organization serves more than 350,000 members. The order provides legal aid, networking and lobbies on behalf of officers. NCFOP President Randy Hagler said there are fraternity members throughout Rowan County and in the Spencer Police Department.

Specifically, the letter points to a phrase in the posting that states, “Candidates who meet the minimum qualifications and may enhance the diversity of the department may be eligible to be hired as a Police Officer.”

However, the job posting on the Spencer website states, “Candidates who meet the minimum qualifications and may enhance the diversity of the department may be eligible as a Police Trainee and attend BLET.” Town Manager Peter Franzese told the Post the posting has been on the town website for several months and has not been changed. The full job description for the officer position says “Qualified candidates who may enhance the diversity of the department may be considered for Police Officer Trainee and hired to attend BLET.”

The posting says preferred candidates will have already completed basic training and passed the state exam.

The letter, signed by Hagler, goes on to say, “You are making it increasingly difficult for the Police Department to recruit and hire qualified candidates because you seem to be looking for a particular type of officer. Your officers and your community will face much greater risk because of these hiring guidelines you have put in place.”

“Hopefully, the folks that serve in the leadership roles in Spencer will look at this issue and see that the need to hire qualified applicants that can serve your community should be the only criteria for employment with the town of Spencer,” Hagler’s letter states.

Franzese said the diversity component on the application is broad. He said the town currently employs no female officers. Mayor Jonathan Williams gave diversity of age as another example. Williams said the diversity component is a plea that the town is looking for diversity, but it’s not a requirement.

“Diverse in all areas,” Williams said, “whether that be experience, whether it be race, gender, that we have a large pool of applicants that we can then go to and select the highest quality talent from that group that wants to work in a small town like Spencer.”

The diversity component specifically references hiring and paying people as regular employees to complete the 16-week process. After basic training, the hope is to bring the new recruit on as a trainee. Williams said paying people during basic training opens up the possibility for more people to enter law enforcement.

“If somebody misconstrues that job posting to be a limiting factor, I would say it is absolutely the opposite,” Williams said, adding that people tend to gravitate toward the idea of racial diversity, but that is only one component.

The town’s most recent police officer hire, Philip Brown, was hired under the process described in the job posting.

“A lot of times when you do what is the right thing, that’s when you’re criticized most,” Williams said. “At least in small town America.”

Hagler said hiring people to go through BLET is not unheard of, but it’s uncommon for towns of Spencer’s size. He also noted BLET attendees must be sponsored by a law enforcement agency.

Hagler retired from a more than 40-year law enforcement career as chief of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Police Department. He said the NCFOP and his personal view is to welcome diversity because it makes departments stronger.

Hagler said the shortage poses the potential for slow response times, officers not being able to secure backup when they need it and relying too heavily on the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office.

Hagler also claimed qualified people have applied for positions in the department and been turned down for not meeting the diversity component.

Franzese said the agreement with the county should address safety concerns, and refuted the idea that the town has turned down applicants. However, he said the town received an application from someone who completed BLET and withdrew. He said Brown was hired from a field of candidates in the spring — prior to the shortage of officers the town has now.

Gemale Black, Salisbury-Rowan NAACP president and a member of the Spencer Police Chief’s Citizen Advisory Board, said the letter surprised him and he did not understand the motivation for sending it.

“Do I feel like Spencer is holding jobs for particularly minority candidates? No. I don’t,” Black said, noting Brown is the town’s only minority officer.

Black said the NAACP wants the town’s police department to be diverse and reflect the makeup of the community. Black said he wants to review the hiring policy for the town and, if the policies are outdated, they need to be brought up to date.

Black said he believes creating a more diverse police force and hiring more officers go hand-in-hand. He fielded the idea to bring more education about the profession and department to North Rowan High School as a means to recruit prospective officers. He credited the town for its diverse board of aldermen and diversity in other departments as well.

“They have to do something different, and I believe Spencer is open to doing something different.” Black said.

About Carl Blankenship

Carl Blankenship has covered education for the Post since December 2019. Before coming to Salisbury he was a staff writer for The Avery Journal-Times in Newland and graduated from Appalachian State University in 2017, where he was editor of The Appalachian.

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