Trending Topics

Fla. police monitor beaches for potential recruits during spring break

Officers roamed the beaches, handing out water and merchandise and challenging spring breakers to pushup contests


Fort Lauderdale Police Department Detective Henry Lockwood challenges Spring Breakers from State University of New York Oswego to push-ups on the beach on Wednesday. The agency is actively hiring and has decided to try a new strategy: reach out to Spring Breakers. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Joe Cavaretta/TNS

By Shira Moolten
South Florida Sun-Sentinel

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Spring Break revelers on Fort Lauderdale Beach observed a potentially nerve-wracking sight this week: Police officers patrolling the beach in an ATV, confronting throngs of bikini-clad partiers.

But the officers, waving, blasting FloRida and handing out frisbees, were there to recruit them, not arrest them.

Police officer shortages continue to plague agencies throughout South Florida and the U.S., four years since the pandemic began followed by nationwide protests against police brutality and staffing shortages across industries. As the region’s population booms and officers leave, hiring has become a persistent challenge that requires increasingly creative solutions.

Fort Lauderdale has had an easier time hiring than other nearby departments, who they often compete with for applicants, according Detective Henry Lockwood III, a recruiter for the agency. But Chief Bill Shultz decided to ramp up efforts this year in an effort to recruit potential hires and improve relationships between officers and Spring Breakers.

“Miami shut down Spring Break,” Lockwood told the Sun Sentinel from the back of an ATV on Wednesday. “Miami said ‘we don’t want you here.’ We want to make sure we increase in community engagement. The more we engage with them, the less problems we know we have.”

So the detective has spent every day of the last two weeks patrolling — and challenging beachgoers to athletic feats.

On Wednesday, the strategy appeared to be working, at least when it came to grabbing attention. Sunbathers stared as the ATV rumbled by; a pair of students approached the officers to ask for a frisbee. When the ATV stopped near a group of college students from New York, several shirtless boys agreed to the challenge. Soon they were doing push-ups on the hot sand, and Lockwood was giving them tips on controlling their breathing while exercising.

“Noah, just do it!” the group called as their friend, Noah Woldu, 21, debated joining the second round.

When he tapped out, he stood by the ATV, where he told the Sun Sentinel he had never considered a police job before.

“After this I would,” he said. “They all seem to be in a great mood. They want to be here. It’s not like they’re paid to be here.”

Marketing campaigns from social media to the grocery storeRecently, Tania Ordaz, the spokesperson for Miramar Police, attended a law enforcement training with over 20 agencies from across the country. On the first day, every agency was asked for their No. 1 focus or concern.

“Every single department at that training, we’re talking over 20 different departments, they all said recruitment,” Ordaz said.

Faced with booming populations and competition for officers but difficulty retaining them, agencies across South Florida are also rethinking how they recruit.

Fort Lauderdale has 42 open positions, eight of which are vacancies and 34 of which are new roles to keep up with the city’s growing population. The Broward Sheriff’s Office has 123 detention deputy vacancies and 41 deputy sheriff vacancies. Miramar’s Police Department currently has 44 open positions: 30 new roles supported by a federal grant, and 14 existing roles.

For BSO, the vacancies on the law enforcement side are fairly typical, but the detention deputy vacancies are an issue.

“That’s a problem for us,” Sheriff Gregory Tony told the Sun Sentinel in a phone interview Wednesday. “We’re seeing people depart because the salaries aren’t as competitive compared to some other areas … we shouldn’t be losing candidates to the north and the south.”

BSO is offering a $5,000 hiring bonus and a $2,000 referral bonus to deputies. But Tony also plans to conduct a salary study and present the findings to the Broward County Commission to ask for more money to increase the baseline salaries. Ideally, he said, BSO would pull candidates from other jurisdictions, not the other way around.

Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Office has placed advertisements in shopping carts at local grocery stores, recycling bins and bus stops, on top of past marketing campaigns in New York, Chicago, and “just about anywhere you can think is a large metropolitan city,” Tony said.

“If I can steal you from New York and bring you down here and give you a raise that makes you the best in the state,” he said, “I’m pretty certain we’ll keep and retain more of our personnel in detention.”

Unlike Fort Lauderdale, Miramar can’t offer the beach. Police are focusing on recruiting residents more than visitors. Officers have gone to local events, shopping malls and parks to hand out flyers, and the department purchased social media advertisements that target people in specific demographics.

“You have to go where they are and attract them in ways that they consume information,” Miramar Police Chief Delrish Moss told the Sun Sentinel. “Geofencing and social media and all these places are really new for law enforcement.”

Agencies are expanding the kinds of people they reach out to and consider. In Miramar, this year’s applicants include social workers, teachers, and ministers, and increasing numbers of women. The agency is also “reviewing” certain requirements, Ordaz said, like its tattoo policy, in an effort to attract younger generations.

“If you look at culture today, you’re hard-pressed to find somebody who doesn’t have a tattoo,” Moss said.

In addition to the Spring Break effort, Fort Lauderdale police officers are also trying to connect better with people who already live in the community.

When Officer Tourek Williams asks kids he works with if they want to be an officer, they often say yes. But as they get older, their interest often fades. Now, he’s trying to bond with kids and set them on the path at a younger age.

“They see a uniform and a gun and they think we’re born this way,” Williams said during a stop while patrolling the beach on Wednesday. “We didn’t come out at birth with equipment on. It’s good to take off the uniform and engage with kids.”

‘Much more difficult’ to find quality officers

Law enforcement experts don’t agree on a single source of the shortage, but point to high costs of living and shifting attitudes towards policing and work in general.

“It’s just become much more difficult to get good, qualified candidates,” Ordaz said. “It’s a national issue.”

Police officer resignations increased by 47% from 2019 to 2022, according to an annual survey of nearly 200 agencies by the Police Executive Research Forum.

Many have attributed hiring and retention difficulties to the fallout of the police killing of George Floyd and calls to defund the police. Some officers have named public perception as the reason they chose to leave the profession or move to other states. In the year after Floyd’s death, hiring slowed 5%, the Research Forum study found.

In 2022, Gov. Ron DeSantis launched a nationwide marketing campaign offering $5,000 bonuses to new officers who had moved to Florida from other states, citing anti-police protests and vaccine policies and offering Florida as a welcoming place. At a Friday news conference, he announced that this year’s budget would continue to fund the program.

“It’s been a great success story to have folks that aren’t necessarily being treated well in some of these jurisdictions, they can come to Florida, obviously get treated better, have better policies, but then get a 5,000 signing bonus,” DeSantis said. “It’s a token of our support that we care and we understand what you’re doing is important to our community.”

But the policing problem spans progressive and conservative states and doesn’t just come from anti-police movements, law enforcement experts say.

“When I was at Miami Police, recruitment was an issue,” Moss said. “When I was the chief at Ferguson, Missouri , recruitment was an issue. When I was at FIU police, recruitment was an issue. Recruitment has been an issue not just in South Florida but across the nation.”

Moss served as the police chief in Ferguson in the aftermath of the police shooting of Michael Brown, which led to nationwide protests. He believes that hiring challenges have more to do with changing attitudes towards work and public service in general.

“When I was a kid, everyone wanted to a police officer, fireman, President of the U.S., or an astronaut,” he said. “I don’t think that is the case anymore. I think there is such a wide range of other professions out there that are spurring imagination … I think just in the professional realm there is a lot more competition for people’s attention.”

Young people are also changing jobs more frequently. Meanwhile, many of the officers hired during a previous population surge 20 years ago have reached retirement age, Ordaz said.

The number of police agencies in South Florida has also increased, ramping up the competition between agencies hiring from the same pool of applicants, and requiring more creative strategies to win them over.

In the last month, Fort Lauderdale has hired officers from Lauderhill, Hallandale and BSO, Lockwood said. Some of the new officers said they left for the size and opportunities in Fort Lauderdale, others the beach and downtown.

Moss recalled a recent case in which a local police chief saw a recruitment advertisement for a local sheriff’s department in the middle of the mall and set his booth up right in front of it, though he declined to provide more specifics.

“When we are processing people, sometimes it’s a race to see who can hire at them first while at the same time not offering any shortcuts,” he said.

Asked whether Fort Lauderdale’s Spring Breakers gives the agency a competitive edge, Moss said, “back in the day when I was Spring Breaking, I wasn’t looking to be hired.”

But Fort Lauderdale police think that Spring Breakers are more than just partiers. Officer Andy Desir, who joined Lockwood in the ATV, is one such success story. He grew up in Illinois, first discovering Fort Lauderdale police on a spring break trip of his own. The idea would later stick in his mind.

“We’re all young at a point,” Lockwood said. “We all wanna have fun. But they’re in school, a lot of them are seniors, criminology majors looking for careers in law enforcement. If they’re looking to have fun, why not present the opportunity?”

Though Fort Lauderdale police could not say exactly how many new applicants are Spring Breakers, the agency has received a total of 446 applications since Jan. 15 , and 50 applications since the campaign on the beach began on March 4, according to spokesperson Casey Liening.

“We have most definitely seen an increase in views and ‘job interest cards,’” she said in an email.

Conner Creach, a 19-year-old University of South Florida student, completed the push-up challenge Wednesday with a smile on his face. Later, he came back and asked Lockwood for a water bottle from the ATV’s cooler.

“That encounter, right there, it really actually sparked an interest me,” Creach said. “That is a cool guy. That is a good guy.”

©2024 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Visit
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.