March 17, 2017 10:10:04 AM
It's no secret that Columbus Police Department is a young department.
Police Chief Oscar Lewis said most officers in the department of roughly 50 are young, having five or fewer years of experience. He said that's different than when he joined the department as a patrolman in the 1990s.
"With senior officers not around to help guide these younger officers along, it's kind of challenging," Lewis said. "When I came up, there were several senior officers here that pretty much directed you, guided you and kept you from yourself for the most part."
Lewis said the department has about 10 senior officers -- which is to say those officers who have 15 or more years of experience.
One senior officer, Capt. Donnie Elkin -- a 27-year veteran -- recently retired. Elkin's retirement is effective in April, but due to built-up vacation time, he worked his last day with the department in early March.
Elkin, in an earlier story with The Dispatch, acknowledged CPD's youth as the department works to rebuild its manpower, but he said he feels recent hiring efforts are bringing in high-quality officers.
"It's going to take some time," Elkin said. "It's getting better, and you can see it. We're getting better people to apply and we're hiring better people."
Aaron Conley, 22, is a new patrolman for CPD. He is from West Point, though he spent most of his childhood in New York.
Conley was one of four new officers the city council hired at its March 7 meeting. Before that, he worked part time with the Clay County Sheriff's Office for about two years.
He said he's well aware of CPD's manpower shortage, but he doesn't necessarily see that as a negative.
"I particularly chose Columbus because I could make a difference," Conley said. "Because we're so short-staffed, it might be discouraging to others, but I don't run away from a challenge. I thought Columbus could use an officer, someone who's going to step up to the plate when other people step down."
Haley Lucas, 23, is another officer the council hired last week. She lives in Tupelo, but grew up in Caledonia.
Lucas is a military police officer, or master at arms, for the U.S. Navy. She said she's been interested in law enforcement since her early childhood.
While looking for places to work, she said she heard about the challenges facing Columbus and decided she could help out at home.
"From people I've spoken to, a lot of them say that with everything that's happened in Columbus, some people look at it as a torn city," Lucas said. "With that being pretty much my hometown, it tugged on my heartstrings and made me realize that should be a chance for good people who want to help put that city back together."
Role of veterans
Lewis said he believes the department's new officers will ultimately make for positive change in the department. But, he said, with such a shortage of seniority, it's even more important for the senior officers CPD does have to serve as role models.
He said seniority, even for officers who don't have rank, helps because senior officers can point younger ones in the right direction, or help solve problems before they grow into bigger issues.
"We understand these guys are young and want to get out there and do the right thing and be aimed in the right direction," Lewis said. "With seniority, you know how to see things and how things should be done. Without that we have to rely more on training to help guide them along.
"It's very important to have them step up into those roles," he later added. "They have to try to help guide these guys along."
Conley, who said he did his part-time training in Columbus and knew Elkin while he was still a lieutenant, said he knows how important senior leadership is for a department.
"Lt. Elkin would teach you different things," he said. "He'd give you pointers on personality, on how a simple smile or wearing your uniform a certain way can be the difference between a positive or negative situation. He gets you to pay attention to the small things, not just the big things. To have that in a department is crucial. You don't just learn that in the classroom.
"When you have guys like that to look up to, you're on your way to having a really successful department," he added. "We model ourselves after being poised and respectful, and that's what he is."
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