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Police recruits are fewer, but some still want to join 'noble profession'

In 2020, all eyes were on the nation's police departments — their use-of-force policies, training programs and accountability practices were under intense scrutiny following the murder of George Floyd by an officer in Minneapolis.

In Connecticut, the General Assembly passed a sweeping police accountability bill meant to reform policing statewide. The law requires officers to report instances of excessive force by colleagues, bans chokeholds in most instances and rolls back some qualified immunity protections for officers, allowing civil lawsuits to be brought against them in some cases.

The bill's opponents joined many police departments with a shared concern last year — would anyone want to be a police officer if they could be held personally liable? Would anyone want to become a cop in this climate?

Departments are ramping up their recruiting efforts to fill open positions, but most are getting fewer applicants than in years past. Those who were recruited this year, and are either newly on the force or still training at the police academy, said the events of the past year only reinforced their desire to work in law enforcement.

Sgt. Tom Lazzaro said the Norwich Police Department has seen "a definite decline" in the number of new recruits. He said about seven years ago, the department would interview more than 80 interested candidates for just a handful of positions. Now, it's looking to hire 10 officers and only eight people showed up for oral interviews, one of the first steps in the hiring process.

When he meets with potential recruits, he often asks them why they think their peers aren't applying for careers in law enforcement. He said the answers vary. Some people are swayed by friends and family members who discourage them from becoming cops in this climate. Others, he said, cite the lack of municipal support for police departments, or the long shifts or low wages.

Lazzaro said protests against police in the past year also likely played a role. "It was in our face 24/7, it was constant," he said.

But he hopes that Derek Chauvin, who was convicted of murdering Floyd, will be viewed as the exception, not the rule.

"This is still a very noble profession, and the folks who get into it, right now especially, are doing it for the right reasons," he said. "You're going to find the 1% in every profession that doesn't do the right thing, but we shouldn't judge law enforcement as a whole on a few bad apples."

Lazzaro said other departments in the region have had similar recruiting issues, but he doesn't think the police accountability law has played a role in that, because most departments already were practicing the policies in the law. He thinks the coronavirus pandemic had an impact, though.

"We couldn't go to schools, colleges or job fairs to talk to people about this career, which we normally do a lot of," he said. He hopes that now that the state has reopened, the department can resume normal recruiting practices, boost its numbers and fill openings.

Meet the recruits

Reginald Stanford, 51, resigned from the Groton City Council to join the city's police department. He is a Navy veteran, a former correction officer and a former probation officer. He was sworn in to the Groton City Police Department in April and is training at the Milford Police Academy.

Stanford, who is Black, said he always planned to become a police officer someday and hoped that by doing so, he could promote diversity within the department he joined.

"In southeastern Connecticut there are not a lot of African American police officers, so I wanted to become a police officer to show diversity" and add to the diversity of the Groton department, he said. 

The Chicago native said he thinks it is crucial for police departments to reflect their communities in order to serve them properly.

"Whether you're pulling a car over or investigating a crime, it's good to have a Black or brown police officer dealing with Black and brown victims or offenders," Stanford said. "When you have that, people feel more comfortable assisting you with a criminal investigation or you can make a victim feel better when you're trying to help them out." Officers also should be able to relate to and understand the culture and social cues of the people they're dealing with in their communities, he said.

Although Stanford always planned to become a police officer, he said that seeing George Floyd's murder on the news last summer was a defining moment for him.

"I was disgusted by that," he said. "It just made me ask — 'where is the humanity in it all?'

"When you become a cop you have a gun and a badge, but that does not negate the fact that we deal with human beings," he said. "We should never forget that at the end of the day, we're dealing with a human being who has a life and a family, and we should treat them as such. At the end of every interaction, a person should say we treated them with dignity and respect."

'I feel the pain of my people'

In New London, acting police Chief Brian Wright said recruitment has been challenging and he thinks that challenge is shared by police departments nationwide.

"While it is challenging, I think it also provides law enforcement with an opportunity to be more creative and dynamic in the manner in which it seeks new police officer candidates," he said.

For his department, new strategies include more social media outreach, developing and implementing a program designed to recruit younger candidates and developing recruitment literature that depicts more women and people of color in law enforcement careers, Wright said.

The department on June 3 welcomed its newest recruit: 26-year-old Daquan Stuckey. He previously worked as a judicial marshal, including at the G.A. 10 courthouse in New London, and had studied journalism at Quinnipiac University. The department also swore in six new recruits in January.

Stuckey, who is at the police training academy, said working for the New London Police Department "is a dream come true." The department is one that "I feel can start to swing the pendulum back the right way when it comes to the relationship between civilian and law enforcement officer," he said. 

Stuckey, who is Black, said that when he saw people calling for racial justice and police reform last year, he wanted to be part of the change.

"As a person of color I did feel the pain of my people and the wrongdoings from a small number of law enforcement officers around the nation. However, some systems cannot be changed from the outside looking in and the protest sparked a deeper passion in me to be the change I want to see," he said. "I want to change the relationship between civilians and law enforcement one interaction at a time."

'Helping people who need it'

Norwich has three recruits in the police academy's most recent class, which started this month, including a 21-year-old woman who enrolled as soon as she was eligible.

Megan Micklus of Groton joined the Norwich department after working for three years as an EMT in the city. She'd known since she was in middle school that she wanted to become a police officer, and working on an ambulance only affirmed her dream.

Last summer, she said she "got to witness firsthand" how law enforcement in Norwich responded to protests and "it just drilled in more that that's where I want to be, who I want to be."

Micklus said she encourages people to follow their heart if they dream of working in law enforcement.

"With the events going on and the way policing is today, someone has to do it. These positions need to be filled and good people need to do it," she said.

Alexander Wojcik, 25, is one of the department's newest officers — he finished his field training earlier this month. The Marine Corps veteran said he wanted to become a police officer to protect and help members of the community when they need it most. He hopes every new officer has the same goal.

He was inspired to become an officer following the mass shooting in Las Vegas in 2017, which took place while he was stationed in Baghdad.

"I just remember being deployed and watching that occur and feeling kind of helpless. I was sitting there with the intent of serving and protecting and there I am seeing something happen at home and I'm not there to help," he said.

Wojcik is also following in the footsteps of his late father and great-grandfather, who were police officers in Old Lyme. He said he wants to serve and protect like they did.

"I really like the philosophy of being a protector and having the opportunity to do my part in keeping the peace and helping people who need it," he said. "I look forward to being in that position where I can have an impact on someone's life in a positive way."

'I want to be a better person' 

Ryan Gries, a new recruit with the East Lyme Police Department who is enrolled in the police academy, shares the same goal.

"I want to help people, I want to be called on and I take pride in being in the position that I get called on when somebody is having their worst day," the 23-year-old Northford resident said.

The past year didn't change his opinion on a career in law enforcement. "If anything it maybe motivated me a little more to be a part of the change in the world," he said. "I want to be a part of what law enforcement should be and what it should be seen as."

Gries' fellow recruit, 23-year-old Taylor Desjardins, who is also at the police academy, said the same.

"Everything that happened this year encouraged me even more to join," she said. "In my opinion, now is the best time to join because you can be the change you want to see."

Chief Brett Mahoney of the Waterford Police Department said his department "has not seen a significant change." The department has hired nine new officers since June 2020.

Christian Charron, 25, of Groton is doing his field training with the department. He said that while Floyd's murder was a tragedy, it didn't make him question his decision to become a police officer because he knows that his fellow officers are properly trained and would not use excessive force.

Charron, who is half Black, said he and his fellow officers strive to treat everyone equally regardless of their race, gender or sexuality, and are focused on connecting with the community.

Christopher Robinson, 35, of Gales Ferry said his favorite thing about being a Waterford officer, since graduating from the academy in November, is working with community. "I love the interactions with community members. It's nice to be able to get out and talk to people and have those interactions. That's what this department is about, we really go out of our way to make everyone feel safe."

He said passage of the police accountability bill didn't concern him, because he wants to be held accountable.

"When people ask me why I wanted to become a cop — that's the reason. I want to be a better person, not break the law myself, to hold myself accountable and do as I'm trained," he said.

t.hartz@theday.com

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