What works — and what doesn’t — for short-staffed police departments in Hampton Roads – The Virginian-Pilot

What works — and what doesn’t — for short-staffed police departments in Hampton Roads – The Virginian-Pilot

Two tumultuous years into a pandemic that saw many reconsider careers and a social justice movement that placed greater scrutiny on law enforcement, police departments across Hampton Roads are facing vacancies in the double digits.

To help reduce those, departments have implemented competitive pay raises, issued sign-on and retention bonuses for sworn officers, and offered citizens as much as an additional $12,000 to entice them to don a uniform and badge.

Even so, the shortages have persisted — and in some cases, worsened.

Local police departments reported the following staffing levels as of this month:

  • Chesapeake: 43 vacancies out of 404 sworn personnel positions; 10.6% below full staffing.
  • Hampton: 37 vacancies out of 315 sworn personnel positions; 11.7% below full staffing.
  • Newport News: 30 vacancies out of 470 sworn personnel positions; 6.4% below full staffing level.
  • Norfolk: 229 vacancies out of 776 sworn personnel positions; 29.5% below full staffing level.
  • Portsmouth: 87 vacancies out of 257 sworn personnel positions; 33.8% below full staffing level.
  • Suffolk: 38 vacancies out of 200 allotted sworn personnel positions; 19% below full staffing level.
  • Virginia Beach: 59 vacancies out of 803 allotted sworn personnel positions; 7.3% below full staffing level (as of February).

Norfolk and Portsmouth are facing the greatest shortages — two to five times more than neighboring departments.

What works — and what doesn’t — for short-staffed police departments in Hampton Roads – The Virginian-Pilot

The size of the police force needed to adequately serve a city is based on factors that may include population, services the police perform, what the city can afford and police response time, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.

“A lot of times, you measure a department on how quickly they can get to a crime in progress, which is where the police can make a difference,” Wexler said.

The shortage of law enforcement officers is not unique to Hampton Roads, as departments across the nation are experiencing a “staffing crisis,” he said.

“I think a lot of this has to do with the national narrative about cops,” Wexler said. “It — to be honest — has not been favorable.”

The May, 2020, killing of George Floyd — a Black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis — sparked unrest and protests across the globe over law enforcement’s treatment of minorities. Derek Chauvin, the officer who pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, was convicted of second-degree unintentional murder and manslaughter. He was sentenced to 22 ½ years in prison.

Against the backdrop of those protests, policing “has become very high risk,” Wexler said. Departments have encountered difficulty hiring new officers while established officers resign or retire at a quicker pace, he said.

“The number one reason for all of this is the daunting challenges in the post-George Floyd period,” Wexler said.

While discussing gun violence at a news conference last month, then-Norfolk Police Chief Larry Boone agreed.

“Post-George Floyd, with the anti-police rhetoric and everything else that came with that, quite frankly, not just here in Norfolk but across the country, folks just decided they wanted to do something else,” said Boone, who announced his retirement this month.You saw a lot of police chiefs resign, you saw a lot of officers resign. We had the same thing here.”

In early and mid-2020, Norfolk police were down roughly 100 officers from the department’s full sworn strength. As of March 2022, the number of open positions has doubled. To deal with the shortage, Boone said, the department pulled officers from specialty units and offered overtime.

Another problem was the pandemic. It takes law enforcement agencies anywhere from 6-18 months to investigate, hire and train new officers, Wexler said.

“The training period slowed down during the pandemic because you could not get people together in the same classroom, and you could not recruit the same,” he said.

In Norfolk, the staffing shortage is about more than just public perception of police — it’s about money.

Five officers resigned or retired last week alone and several officers are slated to transfer to the Virginia Beach Police Department later in the year, said Michael Lynch, president of the Norfolk Chapter of the Police Benevolent Association.

Surrounding departments are paying more to experienced officers, he said.

“I could go to Virginia Beach or Chesapeake and make $23,000 more than at Norfolk,” said Lynch, who has 12 years of law enforcement experience. “The way to fix it — and fix it today to stop officers from leaving — is to give officers of five years or more a $10,000 pay increase.”

Last summer, Virginia Beach began offering certified officers a $5,000 hiring bonus — a move Chesapeake Councilman Robert Ike called “selfish” as local police agencies struggled to retain and recruit.

To lure and retain officers, other Hampton Roads departments followed suit and began offering hiring and retention bonuses.

It appears, though, that officer migration hasn’t been a significant issue. So far this fiscal year, less than 10% of the 273 officers hired at local departments have transferred from neighboring agencies.

Regional police departments communicate regularly and exchange recruiting information and ideas, said Hampton Police Division spokesperson Cpl. E. Williams. Last month, local law enforcement agencies held a joint hiring expo in Norfolk.

“At the same time, we are all competing against one another for the same applicants,” Williams said.

As police departments try to recruit officers, discrepancy in pay has emerged as a key concern.

New recruit salaries range from a low of $41,200 in Norfolk to a high of $47,278 in Suffolk. Once new hires complete the police academy, officer pay increases to $50,326 in Chesapeake, $48,800 in Hampton, $48,800 in Newport News, $50,835 in Norfolk, $50,000 in Portsmouth, $52,006 in Suffolk, and $51,000 in Virginia Beach.

Norfolk began offering several incentives last year in an effort to retain officers — in some cases giving up to $12,000 bonuses, depending on rank, to stay on another five years.

The Norfolk City Council is considering a 5% pay increase for all public safety personnel — including police officers — in its upcoming budget. If approved, it would be the largest salary increase for public safety employees since 2004.

The proposal, Norfolk City Manager Chip Filer said in a memo, is “meaningful yet measured pay action” during a “historical high level of vacant positions” the police department faces.

But Lynch said those pay increases and incentives are “too late” and fail to correct “pay compression” that is driving resignations.

“When officers are not getting step increases and when they are told the only thing the department cares about is recruiting — instead of retention — that is an issue,” he said.

When recruit pay was bumped up to $50,000, certified officers with more than 10 years of service suffered from pay compression, which occurs when new or less experienced employees earn close to what long-term employees make.

Chesapeake, Norfolk and Virginia Beach offer $5,000 bonuses to certified officers, those who successfully completed the police academy or those who had transferred from another agency. Similarly, Suffolk offers $2,500 sign-on bonuses for new officers and dispatchers, and $4,000 sign-on bonuses for certified officers.

“We saw a 22% increase in police applications in the 12 months after we started bonuses compared to the 12 months prior to their initiation,” said Tim Kelley, a spokesperson for Suffolk.

Newport News does not offer any such bonuses, but Kelly King, NNPD spokesperson, said pay for all positions has increased in recent years.

While Hampton also does not offer bonuses, the division managed to cut its vacancies in half in since July, filling 22 of its 44 open positions. Around that time, the division raised base pay for all ranks. The pay for new recruits increased from $38,618 to $43,297 and from $45,213 to $48,800 for certified officers.

Williams reported there was not a significant boost in applicants as a result of the sign-on bonus previously offered.

“We have had some peaks and valleys over the past couple of years,” Williams said. “Overall, the negative aspects of police work do turn some people away which does lower the applicant pool and makes it more difficult to find and hire quality applicants.”

Caitlyn Burchett, 727-267-6059, [email protected]