LUMBERTON — Enrollment in basic law enforcement training programs at Robeson Community College is down by about 40 percent, and escalating tensions between police departments and communities nationwide could be contributing to the lack of interest.
Mickey Biggs, RCC’S law enforcement training director, says about 31 students typically enroll in the school’s more than 600-hour training sessions. As of Thursday, 18 had signed up for the upcoming day session, which begins Aug. 15.
Enrollment began to drop off last year, with the spring 2015 day session drawing 15 students, Biggs said. The college canceled the fall 2015 night session because it did not meet minimum enrollment of 10 students.
“I think that’s the first we’ve had a class not make it,” said Biggs, a retired police lieutenant who has served as the program’s director for two years and taught law enforcement classes at RCC since 1988. As of Thursday, six students had signed up for upcoming night classes, although applications will be taken through Aug. 15.
The decrease follows a statewide trend. According to Biggs, 88 BLET courses were canceled in North Carolina last year, including at state agencies and community colleges.
Biggs attributes the decline in part to increasing pressure on law enforcement in a world where officer-involved shootings dominate 24-hour news cycles and police are regularly greeted at crime scenes by cellphone cameras.
“There’s has been a lot of push to charge officers involved in shootings,” he said. “They’re saying: Why should I go into a field where if I make a mistake, I could go to prison?”
Pay is also a factor. The Lumberton Police Department, which pays above the average for Robeson County, starts officers out of basic law enforcement training at a base salary of $32,633, with more offered depending on what degrees an applicant holds.
“A lot of them say why should I risk my life for this little money?” Red Springs Police Chief Ronnie Patterson told The Robesonian.
Nationwide, anti-police sentiments have grown in the wake of shootings of black men. The friction between some departments and communities entered new territory earlier this month when gunmen — citing the recent officer-involved shootings — targeted, shot and killed eight police officers in separate attacks in Dallas and Baton Rouge.
“I think a lot of officers feel they aren’t getting support from the public,” said Burnis Wilkins, who teaches continuing education classes in RCC’s law enforcement training program and is a Lumberton councilman.
Wilkins fears a shortage of police officers.
“It’s disheartening that all this is happening across the nation,” he said. “What I see as being an issue is the future of law enforcement. Recruiting has been a problem not only in this area, but across the state and the nation … . With everything going on and officers continuing to be targeted, you’re going to see them choosing another profession.”
Although the state-mandated BLET curriculum is constantly updated in accordance with new laws, equipment and technology, Biggs said there hasn’t been a major shift in how aspiring officers are trained in light of recent violence and demands for reform.
BLET does include courses on officer safety and on community relations, but dealing with the press and the public are covered more in the continuing education courses all officers must take each year. In continuing education, officers learn about body cameras, how to read body language, juvenile and minority sensitivity training and leadership skills. Biggs said he foresees classes being added on how to de-escalate a situation.
There may be a silver lining to the declining enrollment: Fewer applicants for law enforcement jobs means more officers-in-training are graduating with employment.
“The last two classes, by the time they graduated, at least half had jobs,” Biggs said.
According to Wilkins, law enforcement agencies from across the state are recruiting at RCC. A bulletin board in the Law Enforcement building boasts brochures from the Lumberton and Fayetteville police departments as well as High Point, Greensboro, Rocky Mount and the state Highway Patrol.
“Now they’re actually coming into the classrooms trying to hire those officers,” Wilkins said.
Biggs said most of the college’s BLET students hail from Robeson County, or are active or former members of the military based in Fort Bragg. Many go on to jobs in Robeson County, as well as Wilmington, Richmond County and at the state-level. Those agencies send recruiters to campus, or recruit through employees who work as BLET instructors.
Biggs believes the enrollment slump will pass over time. Good police officers must have a desire to help others, Biggs said, and that isn’t subject to trends.
“Hopefully it will pick up because we won’t be turning out enough people to fill the vacancies left by retirements,” he said.
For Biggs, the rewards of his career in law enforcement outweighed the risks.
“Being retired, looking back you remember all the good things you were able to accomplish,” he said. ” … I don’t think that’s something you can get in any profession, except the military.”
Patterson thinks the general climate around policing will improve and that those considering a career in law enforcement shouldn’t be deterred.
“It will get better … this has to be something you want to do.You don’t decide overnight you want to be a police officer,” he said. “You don’t do this just to have a job. You do this because you want to help people. You do this because you want to serve. You do this because you have a passion.”
Sarah Willets can be reached at 910-816-1974 or on Twitter @Sarah_Willets.