Finding and hiring help has been a challenge in all private and public segments and law enforcement is not exempt from the struggle to find and retain employees. But Foley Police Chief Thurston Bullock says his department is using its new support services personnel to gauge interest in possibly moving into actual law enforcement.

“We had to get creative with the current difficulties being seen across the nation with hiring police officers, and this is one of the ideas that we came up with,” Bullock said. “Support Services will provide assistance to our citizens, patrol division, and other divisions within our department.”

South Baldwin cities Orange Beach and Gulf Shores each have active support services staff with Orange Beach having six full-time and a handful of part-timers and Gulf Shores has three on its support team. Bullock reached out to Orange Beach Police Chief Steve Brown when he began exploring starting a program in Foley. His agency now has three support services staff and is looking to add a fourth.

“Chief Brown is a close friend of mine, and we work closely together,” Bullock said. “He had implemented a similar program already, so I was able to glean some ideas from him and the success they have had with their program. Many agencies are doing similar programs with civilian employees across the nation. The titles and duties may differ, but the concept is the same.”

Like the other local cities, Foley is using the new staff to handle duties for the department that don’t require a fully trained and sworn police officer.

“Support Services Technicians are non-sworn positions, meaning they are not cops and have no police authority,” Bullock said. “We make sure they do not look anything like police officers with their attire and vehicles for their safety. What they do have is the ability to free up our officers by doing tasks and services that our officers would normally do for the public, that doesn’t necessarily need a sworn officer with enforcement capabilities to do.”

Among those tasks are directing traffic at accident scenes, waiting for a wrecker to show up after an accident or a roadside arrest where a car was impounded, transporting stray animals to shelter or bringing water to officers working a big accident scene or manhunt.

“Working the school zones has been a significant help to the officers that are on duty,” Bullock said. “We have multiple school crossings that utilize several officers both morning and afternoons. Our Support Services positions have been able to free up the patrol officers to take calls and work traffic enforcement in these school zones. There are a lot of duties they have been utilized for already and the program is still evolving, but it has been very, very successful so far.”

And, the program can be used as a “try it on” for support service staff trying to decide if law enforcement is something they want to pursue.

“One great benefit of our program is that the Support Services position can be used as a stepping stone for anyone that wants to become an officer, but either isn’t quite ready or is unsure of that particular career path.” Bullock said. “Our Support Services personnel are able to work closely with and around the officers to see what is involved in their duties before making that big leap.”

The work with the police department also gives Bullock and other supervisors a good look at personnel to gauge if they have what it takes to join law enforcement.

“Supervisors get to develop our Support Services Technicians and evaluate their work ethic and decision-making skills,” Bullock said. “If and when they are ready to transition into a sworn officer position, we will already know a lot about that individual and whether or not they are police officer material.”

Bullock has been surprised by the candidates his department has been seeing applying for the support services openings.

“We have noticed that most of our applicants have been younger and are wanting to get their foot in the door to pursue a career as a Corrections Officer or Police Officer,” Bullock said. “This has fallen right in line with the additional benefits of bringing this program to our department.”

A plus for those young people getting involved in the program is other training they receive as they learn different skills they may not have had before joining the department.

“Another great benefit that we have enjoyed with this program, is that we have been able to start instilling and developing new skills and even life skills with this group,” Bullock said. “In a very short period of time, the ancillary duties they started performing were tasks they had never done before in their lives. They have assisted us with maintenance of equipment and vehicles and already started installing some of the equipment that goes into our patrol vehicles and fleet. They are eager and quick learners and their technical and mechanical skills are growing exponentially.”

Those new skills include working special events, getting training in unlocking vehicles, helping stranded motorists and other services officers are sometimes called on to perform.

“Overall, the program has been a great success to us so far,” Bullock said. “We are very pleased and grateful to the mayor and city council for supporting this program,” Bullock said. “An additional bonus has been a cost savings to the city as well as getting more immediate assistance to our officers on the streets. It takes a great deal of time, training, equipment and cost in order to prepare an officer and have them ready to hit the street as a professional and prepared solo unit. We have been able to bring our officers relief in a fraction of the time with the addition of our Support Services Technicians.”