Mass. sheriff drops minimum hiring age for COs to 19 in effort to bolster staffing
19-year-olds can join at a salary of up to $68K with a $2,500 signing bonus and become eligible for the state’s 100% tuition reimbursement program
By Charlie McKenna
MIDDLETON, Mass. — Essex County Sheriff Kevin Coppinger is set to announce Monday that he is lowering the minimum hiring age for correctional officers from 21 to 19, in an effort to bolster staffing at the state’s second-largest jail and house of corrections.
Simply put, Coppinger “need[s] bodies.”
The staffing shortage began in earnest during the COVID-19 pandemic and amid shifting views of the role of law enforcement, demand for positions has been far lower of late, Coppinger said. Combine that with the fact that the sheriff’s department’s workforce serves as a feeder system for state and local police departments, and a crisis is created, with 62 positions currently vacant.
“These are the officers that work the housing units, which are most crucial to the organization,” said Coppinger in a Sunday afternoon interview.
As a result of decreased staff, those that do work in the sheriff’s department often are saddled with mandatory overtime, which can turn an eight-hour shift into a 16-hour shift.
“When you do that day in and day out, it creates a serious problem for the officers, they get burned out, it’s a morale issue,” Coppinger said. “But right now it’s the nature of the beast because we’ve had trouble hiring.”
Dropping the minimum hiring age represents the culmination of a number of different efforts undertaken to try and bolster staff.
Coppinger explained that in recent months the department instituted a signing bonus for new recruits, a referral bonus for current staff, and adjusting the work schedule for new recruits in an effort to make it “more palatable,” but none worked.
Now, 19-year-olds can join the department at a salary of up to $68,000 with a $2,500 signing bonus and become eligible for the state’s 100 percent tuition reimbursement program for state schools.
Coppinger said he was optimistic that the lowered age, along with the benefits, would grow the department.
“I think there’s a good pool of people out there,” he said. “There’s still a lot of people that want to work in law enforcement.”
A former chief of police in Lynn, Coppinger is in his second term as county sheriff. He said in his 30 years in Lynn, and six years overseeing the county, he has met a number of 19 and 20 year olds mature enough to begin a law enforcement career, rebuffing a concern that teenagers may not have the maturity level needed to work in the field.
In fact, Coppinger began his career in policing at 19, as a part-time officer in Lynnfield.
Plymouth County, albeit with a smaller population, also hires recruits as young as 19, Coppinger said.
Coppinger emphasized that each new hire would be subject to a rigorous background check, and would have to complete a 10-week-long stint in the department’s Haverhill training academy. Once new recruits clear a background check and complete the academy, they will be paired with a more senior officer to learn the ropes.
“It’s the individual and that’s what we’re gonna concentrate on,” he said.
Across his tenure, Coppinger has placed an emphasis on ensuring that those who wind up in his supervision leave the sheriff’s department better equipped than they came in. With staff so low, doing so is more and more challenging.
“Correctional officers are not just responsible for the care, custody, and control of inmates. They are responsible for helping those that come to us leave our facilities ready for life as a successful citizen — and we need more officers to continue to fulfill this mission,” Coppinger said.
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