PINE BELT (WDAM) - Across the nation, the number of people pledging to protect and serve has plunged. From large cities down to smaller rural areas, like here in the Pine Belt, agencies are not only having difficulty hiring officers, but also keeping those men and women behind the badge.
We talked with some agencies about the reasons behind the high turn-over.
Officers are on the front lines of public safety. It can be a difficult duty to commit to.
"They are facing some really trying times," said Maj. Jamie Tedford, with the Jones County Sheriff's Office.
Those times are more trying than ever in today's society, plagued with heightened tension between law enforcement officers and the communities they vow to serve.
"You're losing a lot of them due to stress," said Sumrall Police Chief Tony Kepper.
Along with that stress come more issues, which further subtracts suitable officers from smaller forces like those in the Pine Belt.
"It's a big concern, but everybody's got to work together," Tedford said.
One of the issues is the consistent competition to keep officers here.
"We've always been the beginning for a lot of people who wanted to go into law enforcement," Kepper said.
It's impacting smaller agencies, like the Sumrall Police Department, along with larger forces, like the Jones County Sheriff's Office.
"You're losing officers due to bigger agencies that are close by that recruit," Kepper said.
"A wage war is what we call it in law enforcement," Tedford said.
"The department that's paying the highest is usually the one that's going to get the best applicants and the most applicants," Tedford said.
Several Pine Belt agencies say they see officers with a passion put up their badges and head to the private sector. Those are careers not under government control and typically offer higher salaries.
When officers can't make ends meet, they leave for higher salaries, better benefits, and implanted incentives.
Several parked patrol cars sit in a Jones County training facility with no deputies to use them. Within the past year, the Jones County Sheriff's Office lost 17 deputies.
WDAM looked into the starting pay range for police departments across the Pine Belt.
Soso Police Department pays around $22,000 per year. For an officer who is the sole provider for a family of three, that's below the poverty level.
Columbia Police Department topped the salary for starting officers in smaller agencies at $33,087. The salaries are meager compensation for putting your life on the line on a daily basis, according to Kepper.
"For what you have to do out here...this job is 24/7, stressful, and it's not for everybody," Kepper said.
"The smaller departments do struggle a lot," Tedford said.
According to a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual pay for police officers and sheriff's deputies in Mississippi ranked in the bottom percentile in the country between $31,000 and $47,000 per year.
Pine Belt agencies say despite the lack of funding and resources, it's crucial that they don't compromise during the vetting process of bringing new officers on their forces.
"You don't want to compromise on lowering any of your training. If anything, you require more training," Kepper said.
"That happens so many times in society in general. If you lower your standards you get bad apples," Tedford said.
Though some agencies protecting and serving smaller populations said they make do with what they have to work with, others said more funding and incentives put in place by local leaders is the only answer to help put and keep both dedicated and qualified men and women behind the badges.
"They're going to have to get the vision and realize that public safety is the number one priority," Tedford said.
Tedford points out that incentives and pay scale alignments similar to those put in place for Hattiesburg officers by Mayor Toby Barker is an example of creating the opportunities necessary to improve retention and recruitment.