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Pay, career strategies needed for police recruitment

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Sunday, May 6, 2018

Elizabeth City police Chief Eddie Buffaloe would rather be spending his time trying to stem the opioid traffic coming into Elizabeth City, solving crimes or creating strategies to prevent criminal activities. To do that effectively he's got to keep enough of his department's officers on the streets, patrolling city neighborhoods or just having a presence for security.

But that's becoming more of a problem for him. Because of several vacancies, Buffaloe is spending more of his time recruiting officers to work for the department, and the department, to compensate for those vacancies, is having to make taxing manpower adjustments to keep enough officers on duty to ensure public safety. Neither situation is good for city residents.

City Manager Rich Olson reported to City Council on Monday that the police department's six vacancies, leaving the department with 58 active officers for a 64-position staff, are becoming a "crisis" for the city.

Olson also pointed out the high vacancy rate being seen in the local police department is not uncommon. In fact, many police departments across the state are facing similar staff shortages, including one of the state's largest, in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, which Olson said is having to deal with a shortage of 300 to 400 officers.

Olson said the Charlotte department is considering raising its starting salaries to $51,000 as a way to attract more job applicants, and he's projecting a salary inducement — though not as significant — may be needed for the city department. Currently, the city's starting pay rate for police officers is about $35,000. That's low for North Carolina, where, overall, law enforcement salaries rank in the bottom 10 nationally, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The average salary for police officers and sheriff's deputies in North Carolina is about $42,980, according to the BLS. That's far below the national average pay for police, which is $61,270 per year.

Granted, local salaries for police work have to be consistent with local economics, local cost-of-living metrics and the average wages compared to those in other cities and states. Hence, it may come down to a mathematical formula as to what the city can afford to be paying its police officers. Nevertheless, as Elizabeth City and other area municipalities work to recruit law enforcement officers, salary levels will have to be part of the solution. That’s become more necessary in recent years just for retaining experienced officers who leave for other departments — even nearby ones like Currituck County — where they can make more money.

But pay shouldn’t be the only option for reducing vacancies at city police or sheriff's departments or the N.C. Highway Patrol — an agency having its own manpower crisis. Here and nationally, the crisis is being fed by fewer men and women showing up to pursue careers in law enforcement.

Locally, that trend can be seen to some degree with the enrollment at College of The Albemarle's Basic Law Enforcement Training curriculum. BLET has been a highly effective training system and a productive staffing conduit for many area law agencies. According to COA program records, however, enrollment in BLET has slipped in recent years from 22 students in the spring of 2014 to 11 students this spring.

That trend mirrors what is going on nationally. The challenge is complicated, but experts on police issues believe recruiting efforts have to be redirected from just filling holes in departments with a regular flow of applicants, to making a better, and more relevant case for law enforcement careers.

That emphasis would be driven by new appeals, from highlighting innovative, technological advances in crime-solving techniques to advanced training techniques and education. Also, successful recruitment and retention may depend on more individual engagement, such as workplace relations, recognitions, trust-building and focus on officers’ family and career priorities.

It’s clear that the current rate of vacancies in the Elizabeth City Police Department is not acceptable. Some accommodation will have to be made in salary or benefits — or both. Accordingly, in addition to pay, city leaders should be equally focused on longer-term solutions and strategies that consider internal department culture, practices and career building to stabilize the ranks of our law enforcement services.

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