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Running out of cops, NEISD will pay training costs for new

The Northeast Independent School District Police Chief has never seen such a shortage of officers – 21 vacancies out of 70, with the new school year in full swing.

So the district created a hiring incentive, the first of its kind locally, offering to fully reimburse tuition and fees paid by police academy graduates who agree to join its forces for three years.

“This is my ninth year as chief at NEISD, and the first time we’ve really seen a shortage like this,” said Wally McCampbell, who leads the department. “Whenever a new class of cadets starts, we’re here to talk to them within the first week or two to give them information about the program.”

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Other education jobs are going unfilled, particularly math, science and special-needs teachers, Bexar County School Districts reported. But demand for police officers, on the rise in some districts in response to security reviews following the May 24 mass shooting at Robb Primary School in Uvalde, has been met with fewer applicants.

Fewer people have chosen policing as a career in the past two years, said Rolando Barrientez, director of San Antonio College’s First Responder Academy.

Cadets in morning training Thursday at San Antonio College’s Law Enforcement Academy. ISD North East is trying to fill 20 vacancies in its police force by offering to pay tuition fees for new officers coming out of training academies. The pipeline of new recruits has only recently begun to approach pre-pandemic numbers, and school districts are feeling the shortage.

San Antonio Express-News/Staff photographer Kin Man Hui

The coronavirus pandemic has had the biggest impact on shrinking the pipeline of new officers, and it has also led to more veterans quitting the force, he said. The sustained national attention on police misconduct and accountability stemming from the 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis may also have played a role, Barrientez said.

But that could change, he said, noting a significant increase in applications to the academy in recent months, particularly after the Uvalde tragedy. The current SAC academy class has 25 cadets and all are applying for jobs, including five with area school districts. The next class will have 45.

“After Uvalde, we were getting more phone calls asking for applications – those who are in their early 20s, out of the military and want to get in touch with law enforcement. Or they are in their late 40s or 50s and want to change careers, so they can go back and serve their communities,” Barrientez said. “Many even want to volunteer as law enforcement officers on the support reserve.”

School districts, however, won’t be able to tap into a larger pool of applicants for a year or more, given the time it takes to earn certification and select positions after graduation. McCampbell also recruits from the Alamo Area Council of Governments Police Academy and academies outside the area. The San Antonio Police Department has its own academy.

With other opportunities opening up for cadets, school districts might not be their first choice. Even with the NEISD signing bonus, other police departments may offer greater financial incentives, McCampbell said.

“Our biggest drawback is that we don’t have the necessary funds for salaries. It takes money for teachers and staff to educate children, so we can’t compete with municipalities or sheriff’s offices,” he said.

The cadets are taking classes Thursday at San Antonio College's Law Enforcement Academy.  ISD North East is trying to fill 20 vacancies in its police force by offering to pay tuition fees for new officers coming out of training academies.  The pipeline of new recruits has only recently begun to approach pre-pandemic numbers, and school districts are feeling the shortage.

The cadets are taking classes Thursday at San Antonio College’s Law Enforcement Academy. ISD North East is trying to fill 20 vacancies in its police force by offering to pay tuition fees for new officers coming out of training academies. The pipeline of new recruits has only recently begun to approach pre-pandemic numbers, and school districts are feeling the shortage.

San Antonio Express-News/Staff photographer Kin Man Hui

But McCampbell said some officers find educational environments appealing compared to other areas of policing, and he’s confident those who want to work in schools can do so.

“We can’t offer the most competitive hourly rate, but what we can offer influences young minds,” he said. “Officers need to reach out to students, celebrate with them their accomplishments. Mistakes become teachable moments and agents help educate students through them.

NEISD Director of Communications Aubrey Chancellor agreed, stressing the value of having community-focused officers in schools.

“The focus is on building relationships,” she said. “If the students hear something, they’ll feel comfortable tipping the agent. And if the officer knows the students better, he will be able to identify if a student is not well or if something is wrong.

After Uvalde, the district did not increase the size of its police force, as several other school systems in the area did. It has created two new administrative posts to help coordinate police responses to problems as they arise, the chancellor said. The tragedy also sparked an outpouring of community support, including offers for security assistance, she said.

And the hiring incentive had an effect. McCampbell has garnered interest in recent days from potential candidates, even from outside of Texas. Two are in process, one due to graduate in December, the other in January.

In the meantime, McCampbell will be rolling out new promotional materials for the program, and when new cadet classes begin next month, the NEISD Police Department wants to be the first to enter.

elizabeth.sander@hearst.com

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