Temptation is present 24/7 in the Williamson County Jail, says Sheriff Mike Gleason, who runs the facility just north of Austin. The temptation arrives in the form of police officers from surrounding jurisdictions, who bring in suspects at all hours. These cops often come from severely understaffed departments. They try to recruit the corrections officers behind the booking counter — many of them young men and women on a wait list to become peace officers for the Sheriff’s Office — with promises like, “Come to us, and you can start the police academy on Monday.”
Every day in his jail, Gleason says with a sigh, “There is a revolving recruitment door.” But more and more often now, the young corrections officers decide they’d rather stay and wait for their slot.
“Because they feel valued, they feel like they belong here with us,” the sheriff adds.
Revamped recruitment and retention strategies
Over the past few years, the Williamson County – Wilco – Sheriff’s Office has revamped its recruitment and retention strategies. After months of arguing — and sometimes clashing — with government officials, Gleason created several new positions for his department, now 566 sworn staff, corrections and law enforcement combined.
“We are not fully staffed yet, but we are in a very good position compared with many other departments in the state,” says Gleason, elected the 36th Sheriff of Williamson County in late 2020.
He also fought to get competitive pay for his officers and deputies. Historically, the sheriff’s office offered the lowest-paying corrections and law enforcement jobs in Williamson County. Now, starting pay for a corrections officer is among the highest in Texas: $51,000 with full benefits. The pay is written into the department’s employee manual and will stay, regardless of who follows him in office, Gleason says.
“Taking money away from public safety would be political suicide,” he adds with a thin smile.
Since 2021, it has been illegal in Texas to defund the police.
Money is key but not the only driver turning the Central Texas department into a poster for recruitment success. Change starts with a willingness to move from “this is the way we’ve always done it,” says Sergeant Donald Foiles, who works in the Wilco Sheriff’s Office training division. “Try something new. Get outside of the box. Stay innovative.”
Billboards and jobs fairs don’t seem to work anymore as recruiting tools, he adds. “They are labor intensive. Time intensive. Travel intensive. And we get very little out of them.”
Instead, Sheriff Gleason and his team sat down and restructured the recruiting and hiring process — mainly by speeding it up. Earlier this year, the department held its first Expedited Testing Day. At these events, applicants come in, sign the paperwork and take a standardized written test. They move on to the gym for their Physical Agility Test (PAT). Successful applicants are escorted to an oral board, where they’re asked a set of questions by command staff. If they pass the interview, a senior officer will issue them a conditional job offer.
After that, applicants are responsible for providing their criminal and credit history and other documentation. The department, with the help of an outside agency, does background checks, and it also performs psychological tests and drug screenings.
“What typically takes three months on average, we can now do in about four weeks,” says James Carmona, assistant chief of special operations.
At the first Expedited Testing Day — held on a Saturday — about 40 applicants showed up, and the department hired 26 new corrections officers. “That is massive” compared to the number of candidates the department hires during regular recruiting events, says Carmona.
He notes that the idea to streamline the process came when they started listening to the applicants. Many said it was hard to get time off from their jobs for several rounds of testing, especially during the week. Carmona recalls seeing the excitement in applicants’ faces when they left the Expedited Testing Day. “They were happy they got it all done in one day,” he says. The next Expedited Testing Day for the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office will be January 6, 2024.
Culture is key
In addition to a faster and more efficient hiring process, other factors help the department attract and retain candidates. The most important is the culture, says Gleason.
Favoritism and nepotism are a no-go, he continues. In many agencies, “a new sheriff brings in 10 or 15 of his good old boys.” But at the Wilco Sheriff’s Office, almost everyone has worked their way up through the ranks and gotten “their fair shake.”
Gleason, who holds a BA in criminal justice and a master’s in business administration and graduated from the FBI National Academy, started in corrections and then spent over two decades working as a peace officer for Williamson County.
The department targets millennials and members of Gen Z with programs focusing on mental and physical wellness, including work-life balance and resiliency. It’s an area that only in the last few years has gained traction in the world of public safety.
Some departments in the U.S., large and small, have implemented initiatives that made national headlines: The pioneering wellness unit at the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department; a new customized childcare facility within the San Diego Police Department, or a wellness room with soundscapes and aromatherapy at the police department in Marietta, a small city north of Atlanta.
Promoting officer wellness
The Wilco Sheriff’s Office is no stranger to promoting programs for its staff’s mental and physical health. A few years ago, it updated its long-standing chaplaincy program, which now includes rabbis, imams and Catholic deacons in addition to the traditional Southern Baptist ministers, says Gleason.
The department has a peer support team. It also works with an outside counselor who is familiar with the world of public safety and helps with critical incident stress debriefings.
There is a state-of-the-art gym in the training building, while another will open soon at the headquarters. Employees are allowed to work out one hour per day while on duty, call volume permitting.
An ongoing renovation of the jail will include a secure break room for officers to relax during their shift — equipped with leather chairs, flat screen TVs, landlines and computers. There’s also an in-house convenience store and cafeteria offering everything from fast food to healthy fare and in-between.
His department had a wellness package in place long before officer mental health became a trend, the sheriff says: “A lot of what we’re doing now is rebranding old-school ideas to fit the young generation of officers and deputies.”
Training opportunities at the Wilco Sheriff’s Office are another draw for applicants. Most classes are done in-house and coordinated by eight law enforcement and corrections officers. Courses include training for recruits and brand-new officers and deputies and annual in-service training for seasoned staff.
To help cross-pollinate between different public safety cultures, law enforcement and corrections officers take certain classes, like defensive tactics, together, says Lieutenant Jerod Morris, who manages the training division. “Whether you’re working in the jail or on the streets, things like ground fighting skills, control and restraint techniques, handcuffing or locating blood pressure points are the same,” he adds.
Once officers start firearms training and go out on the shooting range, the groups are often separated.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the department had implemented protocols for officers to use online training “so they can access certain class modules anywhere, anytime, and pick up valuable information,” says Morris.
Also, the Wilco training staff frequently brings in “high-caliber external educators and instructors from around the state and the country to conduct training,” notes Jennifer Soto, the training office administrator.
Institutions range from Northwestern University’s School of Police Staff and Command and the FBI-LEEDA program to Sheepdog Response, a private training contractor. Courses include management, supervision, internal affairs, human trafficking and handling drug informants.
Morris and Soto both say their main advice for agencies that are struggling to fill their ranks is to develop a solid reputation as a department, nurture a progressive, forward-looking culture — and spread the word. “Turn your employees into recruiters because they are your best advocates,” says Soto.
And as a side effect, happy employees, including young booking officers, may resist any recruitment temptation.
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