SILER CITY — Jordan-Matthews alumnus Erica Vargas always knew she wanted to study criminal justice. A position at Siler City’s Walmart as a loss prevention officer left her wanting something more for her career.
When she heard about the Siler City Police Department’s recruitment program, Vargas signed up. After graduating from Basic Law Enforcement Training (BLET), she’s now one of the department’s newest uniformed officers
“Everything fell into place,” Vargas, 21, said of the recruitment program opportunity. “Every day is a new day, so I figured what better job than law enforcement, where you have something new every day, and you’re not necessarily doing the same thing every single day.”
Vargas is one of seven recent new hires at SCPD, which had 10 vacancies alone in its patrol division last year. To help fill the position, the town began an aggressive recruitment effort for the department. One of the draws: it’s paying inexperienced officers while they complete the 900 required hours of training at BLET.
The town also increased starting pay, salaries for current employees and created a $5,000 signing bonus to incentivize new officers — things Police Chief Mike Wagner said helped fill long-time vacancies, leaving the department with only three openings in its patrol division.
“Through those programs, we’ve been able to increase our diversity,” Wagner said. “We have two female officers now, we have several Latino officers now, which really makes up and balances us within our community.”
Vargas and fellow patrol officer Sydney Clark represent a moment of history for the department by being the first two women to work on patrol at the same time in at least the last 35 years and possibly in the history of the department. Clark started her career as a park ranger at Jordan Lake State Recreation Area but said she wanted to focus more on the law enforcement aspect of her job.
“When I first came here, I did a ride along, and the sense of teamwork and community here was something that really compelled me,” Clark said. “Teamwork is something that I’ve grew up with … understanding that it’s not by its we and that we’re in this together … And I really get a sense of that here at Siler City and I have since day one.”
As a female officer, Clark said she’s experienced hesitation or confusion when she responds to calls. She uses it as an opportunity to help people understand she’s trained and equipped to handle the tasks every other officer is issued.
“I feel as a woman in this industry, it helps bring a sense of balance … and I think it’s good for the community to see a female officer out and about,” she said. “I’m actually building relationships with the public, and that makes me feel good inside.”
Wagner said one of his goals as police chief is to ensure his patrol force looks more like the community they serve. By having Vargas and Clark on calls, he said they can provide different perspectives in certain situations.
“It’s proven through research that in certain situations, our victims will feel more compassion from a female officer, and that goes down to the personal traits of why we hire Sydney and Erica,” Wagner said. “They possess the strong characteristics that represent the future of the Siler City Police Department, our commitment to our community, and wanting to be well balanced in our community.”
Vargas and Clark aren’t the only officers representing a new chapter for the SCPD. Chad Oates is an experienced officer who came to the SCPD from the Randolph County Sheriff’s Department. He said he came to Siler City because he saw it as a way to advance his career.
“Coming to a smaller agency has its perks,” Oates said. “In other words, you’ve got more opportunities I feel, in this position, for openings for improvement, if that’s what you’re looking for in the long run.”
Oates also liked how the SCPD gives him opportunities to work on a wider range of cases, so he’s able to do some things he wasn’t able to in his previous position. Siler City also has the promise of growth, and Oates said that gives the SCPD the chance to grow and add additional services, giving him more upward mobility.
“The agency will have to grow with the town to keep up with demand, and that’s what I meant by the opportunities for advancement are great here,” he said. “With the growth that’s coming in the very near future, with the megasite going in, the chip plant … there’s a lot of growth that’s coming in this area in a very short period of time, so Siler City PD is going to have to grow with the times.”
SCPD Officer Ricardo Magana joined the force almost a year ago after completing his law enforcement training. He said he came to Siler City because he saw an opportunity to build a direct relationship with the public, something he feels is crucial to being a successful law enforcement agency.
“You’ll deal with the same people very frequently, you get to know the people around there,” Magana said. “Then it becomes easier dealing with them, getting information and then that leads to cases being solved that way.”
Vargas said as a Hispanic woman, she feels she can also help bridge a relationship between the SCPD and the Latinx community in town. Vargas said she hopes her presence in the field will help establish a sense of trust she says hasn’t existed.
“I think a lot of the Hispanic community is afraid,” she said. “And every, if not every other call, I will tell them we’re not here to do any harm, we’re here to help … I’ll give them my card and do whatever I can to gain their trust.”
Clark said building relationships with the public is the most crucial part of her job, and she said Siler City’s department has a unique ability to work closely with residents in day-to-day operations.
“I also think it helps the community to see me and say, ‘OK, I remember her, she was fair with me and honest with me, and helped people out.’ That’s a big difference,” Clark said.
Wagner said small town policing allows for officers to provide a special level of professional and personal service to the community. By doing that, he said the department can build positive rapport with the community and in turn, create a sense of trust in the police department’s ability to protect and serve.
“There’s are a lot of benefits of small town policing,” Wagner said. “You’re closer to the community, you’re able to deliver a higher level of personal service and professional service, and that means a lot to a guy and gal in our workforce.”
There are still vacancies within SCPD, but Wagner said he’s working with town staff and his team to close that gap and provide what officers will need to be successful.
“Our goal here in the police department is give them an adequate, fair salary, give them the benefits that they deserve, give them the best equipment and give them the best training, and that will keep a police officer at a department,” he said. “They need to feel like they’re a member of this team. They need to feel like they’re valued.”
Reporter Taylor Heeden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @HeedenTaylor.