In a bid to recruit certified officers, the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office purchased billboards throughout the county including several strategically placed near city police precincts.

Passersby at a number of Mobile Police Department facilities have probably noticed recent billboards featuring Sheriff Sam Cochran encouraging people to join “Team Sheriff.” Those ads were part of a multi-pronged officer recruitment strategy officials say has proven successful.

Cochran has been vocal in recent years about difficulties the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office has had keeping and retaining deputies. Just last year, concerns he raised sparked the county to put millions of dollars toward a 10 percent salary increase.

Cochran said this helped initially, but at the beginning of 2018 his office had 16 deputy positions to fill — a gap he blamed on a number of local and national factors including the increased scrutiny placed on law enforcement in response to police shootings around the country.  

“You still see people lambasting police, but the dangers of policing are really highlighted when you see officers murdered or ambushed,” he said. “There’s been more pressure on existing officers to get out of the business by their families, and we’ve got a booming economy. So there are jobs available in the private sector where an officer might could make more money.”

In just the past few months there have been several instances where local law enforcement officers have been involved, injured or killed during a shootout with a suspect, and Cochran said any of those events can make new recruits hard to come by and experienced officers look for other jobs.

In response, MCSO returned to a tactic it’s used in the past — offering signing bonuses to applicants with law enforcement experience and who are currently certified by the Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission (APOSTC). MCSO offered new recruits $4,500 as well as a $500 recruitment bonus to any employee who recruited a new deputy.

The difference with this push for new hires is that the department also put more than $26,000 into marketing the initiative — including 14 billboards purchased through Lamar Advertising, $7,000 in local TV ads and paid advertisements on Facebook and Instagram.

The Mobile County Sheriff’s Department recently put thousands of dollars into a recruitment campaign seeking experienced law enforcement officers. (MCSO)

No funds that went into recruitment came from Mobile County’s allocations to MCSO. Instead, those dollars came out of Cochran’s discretionary funding — a hodgepodge of funding sources generated by things like pistol permit fees, drug forfeitures and the sale of MCSO merchandise.

According to MCSO spokeswoman Lori Myles, all 16 of those deputy positions were filled between January and March. She also said the cost of issuing bonus and marketing the initiative would be offset by what MCSO saves by not having to train and certify brand-new recruits.

Based on a breakdown provided by Myles, it cost roughly $21,000 to train a new deputy based on the salary they receive during the three-month process and the cost of training itself. In an email to Lagniappe, Myles said that had MCSO hired 16 untrained deputies, it would have cost well over $300,000 in the long run.

“We looked for officers with a few years of experience because they know what the job is all about and are therefore less likely to quit because they don’t like it. It saved us thousands of thousands of dollars in each case, and not only do we save money, but we know these recruits can do the job,” Myles said.

While the swath of new recruits might be good for MCSO, there aren’t many places to find experienced officers with up-to-date APOSTC certification outside of other law enforcement agencies, and most of the 16 hires came from the agencies in the area.

Lagniappe was able to confirm several transferred from the Mobile Police Department, though MCSO has not disclosed exactly how many of the new recruits came from area agencies.

While Cochran acknowledged that could affect agencies who lost employees, he said MCSO faces similar challenges when trying to recruit and retain employees. Before last year’s raise, Cochran had mentioned being at a disadvantage when competing with other area agencies.

“We put in a statement to employees that we’re not trying to pull someone away from another agency unless they are already planning to make a career change,” he said. “We don’t want to put a hardship on other agencies, but we also have hardships. It’s the nature of the beast.”

This map shows locations near city police precincts where the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office placed recruit billboards seeking experienced officers. (MCSO)

However, the placement of the billboards mentioned above strategically targeted MPD precincts and its headquarters — something Myles did not deny.

Maps and documents related to the purchase show that MPD locations were targeted at Museum Drive, Virginia Street, Airport Boulevard and St. Stephens Road.

MPD Chief Lawrence Battiste was not immediately available to comment on the issue.