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Alpena County Sheriff’s Office challenged by police shortage

ALPENA — You don’t see police costumes on Halloween anymore, said Erik Smith, undersheriff at the Alpena County Sheriff’s Office.

Once a profession that drew stiff competition, police work has declined in popularity as a job choice, to the point that police departments are scrambling to get good candidates to fill job openings.

Where once only three or four job postings might be found on any given day, the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards website now lists pages of vacancies in police departments across the state.

The Alpena County Sheriff’s Office is currently feeling the pinch of tough-to-fill positions as it seeks to hire two deputies and two corrections officers.

Finding qualified candidates who will serve the community well is top priority, but that’s a tall task when almost nobody is looking for a career in police work, said Smith, who has been scouring applications trying to fill the posts.

When he came out of the police academy, it wasn’t unusual for a new recruit to sit through 20 interviews before they found an agency to hire them because so many other people were fighting for the same jobs.

Now, police agencies are the ones hunting for employees. Many police academy recruits have jobs lined up before they graduate, Smith said. He’s reached out to colleges, trying to sell possible job candidates on the merits of accepting a job in Northeast Michigan.

A pay scale that begins with a starting wage — $20.15 per hour at the Alpena County Sheriff’s Office — regardless of a candidate’s experience doesn’t help, Smith said.

Northeast Michigan is a great place to live and work and should be a draw to anyone, but police work is still hard, physically and emotionally, he said.

“When you’re dealing with people at their worst every day, a normal human being gets stressed out,” Smith said.

Today’s national climate doesn’t help incentivise anyone to consider a law enforcement career, either, Smith said.

In Alpena, he still encounters many people who respect and appreciate police work and believe it’s an honorable profession, he said.

“It’s just, not so many people think that anymore,” Smith said.

When officer positions go unfilled, police have to reduce road patrols. That means more drug trafficking, more breaking-and-enterings, and more people choosing illegal activity because they think nobody’s there to stop them, Smith said.

The Sheriff’s Office does have applications submitted for the open positions — many of them, in fact. The problem, Smith said, is that most of the applications are from unqualified people proving they are searching for a job so they can keep receiving unemployment benefits.

When those are eliminated, very few options remain, Smith said.

Public service jobs, once revered by kids in costumes and the community, have taken a hit, with police agencies, fire departments, and schools all laboring to fill positions, Smith said.

“Alpena strong. We’ll get through it,” Smith said. “It just makes it harder for us.”

About 60 future police and corrections officers are currently going through Alpena Community College’s criminal justice program, according to Larry Thomson, criminal justice program director at ACC.

Young people considering a law enforcement career must have strong communication skills, be deserving of respect, want to see their community improve, and, most of all, be able to handle the stresses of the job, Thompson said.

According to a representative of the Michigan State Police-Alpena Post, that agency is currently close to full staff.

The Presque Isle County Sheriff’s Office is short one deputy. The opening hasn’t been advertised, according to Presque Isle County Undersheriff Chris Flewelling, in hopes that the county can secure a new recruit when a police academy finishes its current session in about a month.

The Rogers City Police Department has been at full staff for the past year and a half, according to Rogers City officer Matt Bisson. He’s not sure what will happen when they next lose an officer.

“Hopefully, everybody stays,” Bisson said. “Then, you don’t have the problem.”

Officials at sheriff’s offices in Alcona and Montmorency counties and the Alpena Police Department could not be reached for comment. A job posting for a Montmorency County Sheriff’s Office road patrol deputy is posted on the state law enforcement standards website.

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