Finding officers difficult

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 15, 1999

Fighting crime and fire are not the only challenges facing the Natchez Police and Fire departments today.

A lack of qualified job applicants has added another worry to the minds of city officials.

In the last 18 months, the police department has had trouble finding qualified employees, said Natchez Police Chief Willie Huff.

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The pool of applicants for these jobs has also dwindled.

&uot;We’re just not getting as many people taking the test and applying like we used to,&uot;&160;said Natchez Fire Chief Gary Winborne.

This problem is much bigger than Natchez. Its effects can be felt across the state and nationwide.

For example, the Mississippi Highway Patrol has less than 500 troopers but it would like to have 575, said Cal Adams, director of public affairs for the Department of Public Safety. Out of almost 1,000 applicants last year, only 60 were eligible, he said.

Low pay is cited as one of the main reasons for the lack of qualified applicants. Although a Natchez firefighter’s annual starting salary has increased from $14,000 to $21,000, this amount may not be enough to draw a good pool of applicants. &uot;(The increase) seemed to work for a while,&uot; Winborne said. Currently the recruiting problems haven’t hurt the fire department’s staffing. The fire department has more than 60 firefighters and should fill its only vacant position by January, he added.

The Natchez Police Department has more vacancies to fill. The department employs 51 officers, but has funding to hire four more.

&uot;We’ve got the jobs available but we can’t find the people to fill (them),&uot; Huff said. &uot;And we’re not going to lower our standards.&uot;

None of a group of 16 people who recently applied were qualified. Only three managed to pass the required written exam and those three were unable to pass the physical agility test.

&uot;There are people out there who are qualified but they are not thinking about police work&uot; because of the money, Huff said.

Police officers have a annual starting salary of almost $21,000 — up from $16,000 in 1992.

&uot;We’ve got to find more money for these people,&uot; said Natchez Mayor Larry L. Butch Brown.

Brown said he would like to get the starting salary for police officers up to $25,000, but he does not want the department to lower its standards. &uot;We could drop the bar and flood ourselves with more applicants but we are not going to do that,&uot; he said. &uot;We want the best police officers we can get.&uot;

But the competition is not expected to get easier as other cities struggle with the same problem.

The Jackson Police Department is seeking to hire 250 new officers over the next three years. It plans to pay the new officers $22,000 annually to start and will raise the salary to $28,000 after two years. Representatives from the Jackson Police Department have already been to Natchez to recruit officers, Huff said.

Alderman and Police Committee Chairman Theodore &uot;Bubber&uot; West said the problem may also stem from the public’s negative opinion of law enforcement. &uot;I think that perception needs to be dispelled,&uot; he said.

The police committee will meet in January to discuss recruiting and plans to upgrade the office, West added.