To recruit more cops, Fla. governor wants $5K signing bonuses

The new initiative aims to draw in more police applicants as numbers dwindle across the state

By Maya Lora
The Ledger, Lakeland, Fla.

LAKELAND, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Tuesday a new initiative to draw in more law enforcement applicants as numbers dwindle in Polk County and across the state.

The announcement came just two days after Polk County police officers were involved in a shootout while responding to a mass shooting that claimed the lives of four victims, including a newborn.

In this Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021 file photo, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks in Pembroke Pines, Fla.
In this Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021 file photo, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks in Pembroke Pines, Fla. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

Speaking at a press conference held at the Lakeland Police Department, DeSantis said a new legislative package set to be introduced next year will help Florida "capitalize on this moment and make sure that we have the strongest core of law enforcement personnel anywhere in the country."

DeSantis said anti-law enforcement sentiments and movements to "defund the police" have lowered morale for police units throughout the nation. He touted previously passed pro-law enforcement state legislation, including the anti-riot bill he said was borne out of massive protests last year following the death of George Floyd. Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Chauvin was convicted for second-degree murder in June and sentenced to 22 and a half years in prison.

"There was a movement throughout the country to defund or reduce funding or reduce support for the people who wore the uniform. And in Florida, we said at the very beginning, that is not gonna fly in the state of Florida," DeSantis said. "We're proud in Florida of being a state where people who are in uniform know they're appreciated. They know they have the support, certainly of the governor and the attorney general, but also our legislature and the people throughout the state of Florida."

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The Florida legislature will consider a package next year meant to incentivize law enforcement recruitment throughout the state. The package will include three programs designed to draw both in and out-of-state applicants.

First, the state will offer a $5,000 signing bonus to anybody "new to law enforcement in the state of Florida." That includes Florida residents entering into a career at a police department and existing officers who move to Florida from another state.

"We think that that's a way to draw good talent from within our own state to enter the profession in the first place," DeSantis said. "We also think it's a way to capitalize off some of the folks who are not getting the support they need and to say you know what, you'll be supported in Florida, and we're also going to make sure that we do our best to make it worth your while."

Second, in order to encourage out-of-state law enforcement officers to relocate, those officers can take the state officer certification exam for free. Additionally, the state will cover the cost of "any necessary equivalent training programs for relocating officers up to $1,000 per officer."

DeSantis said that portion of the package is modeled partially on the Lakeland Police Department, which turned to other states to hire 13 new officers.

"They specifically went to cities where the morale was low in the police force and where they were not getting the full-throated support of the community and the elected officials," DeSantis said, calling out the New York Police Department by name. "This is something where you have people that have chosen this profession, and they have an opportunity to come to communities, cities, counties, the state of Florida, knowing that they're going to be appreciated."

Lakeland Assistant Police Chief Hans Lehman said the department sent a crew of seven to New York City to recruit officers from the 30,000 in that area. He said they spoke to close to 300 officers from varying New York agencies, of whom more than 100 applied. Six officers will start Monday, another six will start in October and then one more after that.

Lakeland Police Chief Ruben Garcia did not attend the press conference as he is recovering from a COVID-19 infection.

"We took our recruiting on the road and we had great success with it," Lehman said.

[READ: With decreased resources, how will the police continue to provide quality services?]

Lehman previously told The Ledger he's noticed a department shortage over the last couple of years. In 2018, LPD had 569 applicants and 24 new hires, compared to 481 applications and 15 new hires in 2019. Relatedly, the Polk County Sheriff's Office had 3,427 applications and 92 hires in 2019, which dropped to 3,070 applications and 84 new hires in 2020.

Lehman said recruitment trips in and out of the state are necessary because LPD isn't getting as many local applications.

[RELATED: 5 takeaways for police recruiters from the ‘Who wants to be a cop?’ series]

As the third part of the package, the state will start a law enforcement academy scholarship program designed to cover the cost of enrollment for new recruits entering a law enforcement academy that may not qualify for other financial assistance.

DeSantis was joined at the press conference by local elected officials, including U.S. Rep Scott Franklin, R- Lakeland; Sen. Kelli Stargel, R- Lakeland; Sen. Danny Burgess, R- Zephyrhills; Rep. Josie Tomkow, R- Polk City; Rep. Colleen Burton, R- Lakeland; and Attorney General Ashley Moody.

"The fact that I'm announcing a monetary issue today, we have Senator Stargel here, that's a good sign in terms of the prognosis for this," DeSantis said at the beginning of the press conference.

Moody, a fifth-generation Floridian with a husband in law enforcement, said she has "never been more proud to stand here and say, 'I am a Floridian, I am proud of this state, I am proud of the leadership of Gov. DeSantis.'"

" Florida is now the most pro-law enforcement state in the nation," Moody added. "It is incredibly negligent to say we're going to not only slash funding for police, but in some of these politician's cases, they're bragging about wanting to abolish wholeheartedly agencies. It is idiotic, it is negligent, I believe it's criminal."

Despite the proximity to the timing of the event, DeSantis only mentioned the recent quadruple homicide in Lakeland briefly, calling the alleged shooter and Marine veteran Bryan Riley a "crazed guy on drugs."

Later, when asked about what he would say to local officers who responded to the shooting, DeSantis called it an "outrageous crime."

"This guy was totally off his rocker and needs to have the full weight of the law brought down," DeSantis said. "When you have something like that happening, what do you do? These are the folks that you call upon. And they're there for you, time and time again."

In response to a partially asked question from a local reporter, DeSantis promoted the use of monoclonal antibody treatments for COVID-19.

The question related to comments DeSantis recently made about vaccines being a personal choice that impacts personal health, rather than impacting others around you. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, pushed back against that claim on CNN.

When asked about saying that vaccines do not impact him or anyone else at the press conference, DeSantis said he was misquoted.

"If you're going to force vaccine mandates on people, just understand what the data is showing us about the vaccine. The data is showing us you're much less likely to be hospitalized or die if you're vaccinated," DeSantis said. "However, the vaccinations have not created herd immunity. So if the idea is that having herd immunity, you force everyone to do this and you create herd immunity, that has not happened. It's still spreading."

DeSantis said that despite the hope that having over 50% of the population vaccinated would bring herd immunity, that just "hasn't happened." In Florida, 53% of the state is fully vaccinated and 64% have received at least one dose.

"It doesn't mean that there's not positive impacts but the positive impacts is mostly reducing the vaccinated individual's chance of being severely ill," DeSantis said.

Experts have repeatedly recommended vaccinations as the best prevention against COVID-19 and the best path to reducing the spread of the virus.

DeSantis went on to encourage monoclonal antibody treatments as an early intervention for those who test positive for COVID-19. He said by the end of the week, there will be 25 sites in Florida providing monoclonal treatments that can all do up to 320 infusions a day.

(c)2021 The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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