Dunwoody’s first two police officers who were not previously employed in law enforcement were sworn in at the March 26 City Council meeting, marking the beginning of a new wave of police recruitment in the city.
Officers Theresa Hernandez and Slade Mehas were sworn in by Mayor Denis Shortal at the meeting. Chief Billy Grogan said Hernandez and Mehas are the two new officers hired by the city who were “non-certified” — meaning they had not been formally trained as a police officer before being hired by the DPD. The two recently wrapped up their mandatory police academy training at the Georgia Police Academy in Cherokee County.
Hiring non-certified officers is a new venture for the city as the city continues to face a waning supply of people looking for work as police officers.
“Since we’ve started our police department, we’ve only hired certified officers,” Grogan said in a recent interview. “Usually they’ve worked at another police department or were retired and wanting to come back, but were already POST [Peace Officer Standards and Training] certified.
“And we did that very successfully. But over a number of years, probably in the past year or so, we were not getting as many highly qualified candidates as we wanted,” he said.
Grogan said Dunwoody Police continue to receive many applicants, but most are screened out after background checks.
Faced with this issue, Grogan decided it was time to hire non-certified officers. Hernandez and Mehas were hired late last year and put on the payroll, then sent in January to the Georgia Police Academy, part of the state’s Public Safety Training Center.
Training is about 11 weeks. The officers are paid their approximately $43,000 salary while attending the academy, but there is no cost to the city to send recruits to the state police academy, Grogan explained. Instead, their tuition was paid for by fees collected with every citation issued in the state, which go to the Georgia Public Safety Training Center’s budget used to train future police officers, he said.
“Last year we made the decision to solicit applications from those who are not certified and send them to the academy,” he said. The new officers worked with veterans to train for the police academy and then return to the department for several months of additional training in the field with other officers.
“This is new for Dunwoody. It’s at no cost to send them to the academy. We do pay their salary” while they are in training, he said.
If an officer fails the academy, they can lose their job, he said.
“Their job is to pass the academy,” he said. There is an emergency driving test that many officers do fail the first time but won’t lose their jobs, he added. Instead, they can take that portion of the academy again.
There are currently 59 officers in Dunwoody’s ranks; another three officers are slated to be hired May 1 to bring the total to 62.
Grogan said a major reason more people are not signing up to be police officers is because the country’s economy is doing well. When that happens, he said, more people are getting out of law enforcement and going into the private sector, where they can receive better pay and better hours.
Police departments around the country are facing recruitment issues, Grogan noted.
“Recruitment challenges have always been there for law enforcement, in metro Atlanta and the U.S.,” he said. “Recruiting and keeping officers is especially more difficult when the economy is doing well.”
In Atlanta, for example, the department is down about 300 officers from a full force, according to Chief Erika Shields. She recently made the decision that Atlanta Police Department would not respond to as many shoplifting calls in Buckhead due to the severe shortage of officers in that zone.