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Small police departments struggle to stay fully staffed

JOSEPHINE PETERSONMay 17, 2019

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — Officer Kyle Borden steered his black-and-white patrol car onto U.S. 13 and cruised past the farmers market before darting in and out of New Castle neighborhoods. The young cop, with only two years on the job, was the only officer that night patrolling the streets, covering the city’s 5,500 residents.

The City of New Castle has 18 positions for police officers, but rarely are they all filled. Well-paying jobs sit open for months, waiting for qualified and willing candidates. Even when jobs are filled, turnover remains high as officers leapfrog to larger departments.

“Now, we’re all competing for the same person,” New Castle’s Chief Richard McCabe said. “And small guys like us are losing.”

Delaware’s police departments are struggling to stay fully-staffed amid a growing state population. Understaffed departments are leading to fewer patrols and slower response times in some towns.

In an era in which police are highly scrutinized and the profession is easily tainted by a few bad cops, police agencies across the nation are struggling to fill their ranks.

Delaware has 46 police departments, and most of them have fewer than 50 officers. Only five police departments — Delaware State Police, New Castle County, Wilmington, Dover and Newark — have bigger forces.

Over the past few years, the smaller departments have seen a declining interest in police work and have struggled to lure experienced cops with the salaries they offer.

Even when small stations hire a fresh face, they bear a high cost of putting them through seven months at the police academy and three months of field training. And within a few years, many of those rookies are lured away by larger agencies.

For Borden, becoming a cop came with its difficulties. He feels constant pressure that everything he does reflects on his badge. Borden doesn’t feel like he can stop being an officer when he gets off work, and because of that, he has lost friends along the way.

Borden is thankful New Castle took a chance on him and likes getting to know the community he protects. But, he also realizes there are opportunities he is missing out on, including more training and more specialized work.

“At some point, it might weigh on me more, but positives outweigh the negatives for me now,” he said.

The City of New Castle currently has three of its 18 positions vacant. One job posting for more than $50,000 has been open for four months.

“It’s horrible,” New Castle’s Chief Richard McCabe said. “We can’t find people who want to do this for a living anymore.”

In the suburban and university town of Newark, interest in police jobs has been erratic. In 2010, the department received 162 applicants for five positions. By 2016, that number dropped to 58 applicants for six spots. Between retirements and resignations, the department has not been fully-staffed in years, Lt. Andrew Rubin said.

“We lose people, and we’re running short,” he said. “We are constantly playing catch-up.”

In Elsmere, Police Chief Lisa Giles said she has seen fewer applicants, and a lot of it is because of negative coverage in the public eye.

“Who wants to get into law enforcement nowadays?” Giles asked. “Who wants to be scrutinized every day?”

No department is immune to public backlash after cell phone videos of aggressive police interactions surface.

A New Castle County officer was filmed punching a teen as a second officer pinned him down earlier this year. A state police trooper pulled a gun on a driver near Lewes who did not get out of his car, footage showed.

When Giles does get new hires for her 12-person department, they soon leave. While she can’t fault people for wanting more money and wanting a specialized job, it’s such a cost to the department, she said.

In South Bethany, all but one of the police department’s officers deserted the Sussex County station about a month ago, leaving Sgt. Patrick Wiley to man a town of 1,400 homes. Much of South Bethany’s homes are seasonal, so Wiley hopes they hire at least a police chief before the summer months hit. The department has two officers in training and is hiring for two remaining positions.

“It can be overwhelming,” Wiley said. “My workload has definitely increased.”

Last month, Ocean View officers were sworn in as South Bethany cops to write tickets and patrol the city’s streets. Wiley said it’s been extremely helpful while he searches to fill the ranks.

Ellendale’s sole police officer, Bruce Von Goerres ping pongs shifts to solve cases. If he needs a second opinion to run cases by, Von Goerres reaches out to neighboring police departments.

Pay is a big part of retaining officers in small towns, said Von Goerres, who retired from the state police after 30 years. Without his state pension, he couldn’t live on the salary provided by the town, he said.

“A young person couldn’t live alone on this,” Von Goerres said.

Delaware City is trying to fill a position for a fourth officer. Chief David Baylor has sent four candidates through the academy since 2015. The first has already gone to New Castle County, the second left law enforcement. The third withdrew before classes started, and the fourth is in the academy now.

Milford faces a pressing population increase, at an estimated 130 new homes each year, Mayor Campbell said. The current size of his department cannot effectively handle the increased crime a bigger town brings, he said.

“With the growth we are having in Milford, I’m hurting for police officers,” Campbell said.

Milford was approved for five more officers last year. They once had around 100 applications for a spot, but these days they get about 30, said Mayor Archie Campbell.

The community has already started seeing a drop in response time. Half of the city budget is designated to the police force, but part of that is paying for officers still in training.

“You’re down to one cop hired, but you’re paying for eight,” the mayor said. “It will take about a year for them (new hires) to get to the street.”

Det. Maloney said the department once prided itself on responding quickly to all calls, but now it’s taking officers longer to get to non-critical calls, like shoplifting and petty theft.

“When there is an increase in the amount of calls, some calls can pend for a longer than we’d like,” Maloney said.

The process to become a police officer is long and intensive. It can take two years before a candidate can hit the streets as a patrol officer.

Paying a candidate’s salary and benefits through the academy and field training can cost departments around $90,000 per officer. That’s a risky investment for smaller departments knowing fresh graduates can leave as soon as a year after finishing the academy.

Borden was the first recruit the City of New Castle sponsored in more than 20 years, Chief McCabe said. The department was desperate for officers and made the plunge.

The path to becoming an officer includes:

— A several month-long interview process

— A physical fitness test

— An aptitude test

— An extensive background check, where the department interviews families, schools, and anyone the candidate had relationships with

— an interview with the chief

Then, those accepted head to academy.

The academy includes about seven months of classroom work, while recruits face military boot camp-like training. Graduates then have three months of field training, before they are on the streets by themselves.

“From the day we hired you, you aren’t beneficial to us for a while,” Lt. Andrew Rubin of Newark police said.

Delaware law requires a recruit to work two years at the police department sponsoring them, but that’s not enough time for smaller departments to feel like that burden is worth it.

Including ten months of training, the two-year agreement hardly makes sense for small departments, said Chief Lisa Giles of Elsmere police.

Elsmere and a few other departments like Delaware City and Middletown now require potential recruits to sign a 5-year agreement.

As hard as it is to find someone interested in joining law enforcement, it’s even more difficult to steer them toward a small town agency.

It’s common for officers at smaller departments to move to large departments like Wilmington, New Castle County and the state police after a few years. The tug of a bigger salary, better benefits, better retirement plans and specialized fields draw them in. A small-town officer could see a salary increase of more than 60 percent at the larger agencies.

Jeffery Horvath with the Delaware Police Chiefs’ Council said the biggest bonus of moving up is the health benefits. Small town budgets cannot offer healthcare for life like big departments.

“A lot of it comes down to dollars and benefits,” Horvath said.

With a handful of young, ambitious good cops, Chief McCabe said he is worried.

“Now we’re looking over our shoulder,” McCabe said. “Anytime a larger department puts out a notice that they are hiring, we start to look, and we wait and we wonder.”

The state’s big agencies, like New Castle County Police, said they aren’t actively poaching. It’s a natural thing for officers to want to advance their careers, and the county doesn’t shy away from that, Officer Tyler Shears said.

But even larger departments struggle with a shrinking applicant pool. New Castle County still wrestles with filling openings. The county police’s Fraternal of the Police President, Jonathon Yard, said there is less than one officer per 1,000 residents in New Castle County.

“For the size of this county, you don’t have enough officers,” he said. “You have to be able to grow your department with your county.”

Yard said their retention rates are worrying as well. After a few years, even county police are losing to larger agencies, like state and federal.

“We just spent over $100,000 to give them the all the best training and now they are going to take that and shine somewhere else,” Yard said.

County police is currently training 21 recruits for vacancies no one already with a badge applied for.

Wilmington police recently began its 99th academy with fewer applicants than they hoped. City councilman, Bob Williams, a former Wilmington cop, said the 179 applicants received this year is a dramatic reduction from the 800 applicants when he applied 20 years ago.

Delaware isn’t alone in scrambling for manpower in law enforcement. More than 63 percent of departments across the country reported a decrease in job candidates, according to a Police Executive Research Forum survey reports.

Chuck Wexler, the director for PERT, called the shrinking profession a national crisis.

Agencies are using trial and error tactics to get more badges on the street. Most of the ideas include incentives like signing or academy graduation bonus, while others offer support outside of work with housing, childcare or relocation assistance.

Some have reduced education requirements. Horvath of the Delaware Police Chiefs’ Council agrees that agencies in the state could ease educational standards. Having a college degree doesn’t equate to being a good cop.

“It’s a job that requires a high degree of integrity and a lot of common sense,” Horvath said.

In Delaware police chief meetings, they are trying to figure out how to make the best with the current situation. Chiefs share information about good applicants, and have talked about creating an applicant pool for smaller police departments, Horvath said. Someone who applied to Middletown but didn’t make the cut could be a good candidate for Elsmere.

Smaller agencies like Delaware City and Newark rely on retired officers to help out. Chief Baylor at Delaware City bolsters his team with newly retired cops from the state or county, who are looking to slow down but still earn an income.

Baylor said it can be more beneficial to have experienced officers on the streets, rather than young guys who will probably leave when they can.

“I have to do what is best for Delaware City,” Baylor said. “My community is just getting to know these young guys and then they are gone.”

Newark uses former cops to investigate candidates’ backgrounds during the hiring process.

A proven source to find candidates is through a summer police program. Seasonal help has brought younger candidates into smaller departments, McCabe said. The seasonal hires work the summer months walking or biking around, handing out citations, checking out suspicious activity, and investigating complaints.

Police chiefs encourage anyone considering the job to test it out for summer.

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Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com

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