Because Of Pay, Small Ohio Departments Struggle To Find Qualified Officers

BUCKEYE LAKE, OH – As the Buckeye Lake Police Department starts to rebuild, its new chief knows it will be a struggle to get officers to apply because the small town can’t compete with compensation offered by larger departments.

Chief Vicki Wardlow said other small departments are in similar situations.

“It’s a training ground for new officers, new cadets, but retention is virtually impossible unless you offer benefits that the other departments can’t,” she said.

In recent months problems have been exposed with two small police departments in Licking County. The former Buckeye Lake chief, James Hanzey, was terminated in May for neglect, incompetency and malfeasance.

In a report that followed, it showed the Buckeye Lake department was deficient in 13 areas ranging from lack of standard procedures to police reports not including necessary information.

The former Kirkersville chief, James Hughes Jr., died of an accidental overdose after he allegedly took the drugs from the Kirkersville property room. Hughes was paid $14 per hour. Kirkersville Mayor Terry Ashcraft declined to comment.

Buckeye Lake Mayor Peggy Wells said the village wants to be choosy about who is selected for interviews to fill vacancies, but it will be difficult.

“The challenge is getting good officers to even apply because of the pay rate,” she said.

The hourly rate for full-time officers in Buckeye Lake is currently $14.97, Wells said.

Because of these incidents, The Advocate spoke to experts about why officers need to be properly trained to protect residents’ rights and ensure any court cases that may come from crimes are properly prosecuted.

“Any new court decisions that really affect First Amendment rights, freedom of speech or any Fourth Amendment rights, such as arrest, search and seizure, it’s imperative that the officers get on board with that and know what the courts have ruled as soon as possible,” said Jeff Sowards, the commander for peace officer basic training at Central Ohio Technical College.

If officers aren’t properly trained and arrest someone for something the person should not be arrested for, the municipality opens itself up to civil suits, Sowards said.

For example, he said Ohio is an open carry state, meaning a person can openly walk around with a gun.

“We can’t arrest you for that, that’s a second amendment right. And the person that you encounter, they really don’t have to talk to you a lot because that’s the second amendment right,” he said. “If the police encounter you, and they aren’t informed of this and they arrest you, can you see where the civil liability is going?”

Or if law enforcement agents aren’t well trained in filling out reports and cataloging evidence, it could impact the court process, said Licking County Prosecutor Bill Hayes.

“If we don’t get a good investigative report coming in, you have a case that could end up in bad shape for us when we get there,” he said. “They actually make or break the case from the time they’ve investigated when the trail was hot so to speak.”

When it comes to physical evidence, prosecutors have to show a chain of custody, Hayes said.

“We have to show where that evidence has been since we went to the crime scene … so it can’t be suggested that something’s been substituted for something that was actually found,” he said. “They have to be able to show they have a property room and that they logged in all the evidence.”

The May report on the Buckeye Lake department stated the department did not properly log and track evidence.

Reynoldsburg Police Department Lt. Ron Wright previously said he planned to ask the Ohio Attorney General’s Office to examine the practices and procedures of the Kirkersville Police Department evidence room after Hughes’ death.

Wardlow said the Buckeye Lake department is making changes to ensure it gets the best candidates. The application will now ask officers to provide more information about themselves, including four professional references and one personal. Applicants will also need to list their job history as far back as they can, she said.

“It’s just a more detailed, more job orientated application other than I worked here for this amount of time and here’s a reference,” she said. “It’s more in-depth and it’ll be more selective in that manner.”

Wardlow is also working on a detailed outline of the officer job description, giving applicants a full look of what is expected of them.

Applications must now be notarized as well, she said.

“If somebody is found to have been dishonest on the application, that is grounds for me alone to discontinue any interest in that party,” Wardlow said.

For example, Hughes omitted his conviction for disorderly conduct in two separate places on his application with Kirkersville. But he did mention the incident during his interview for the job.

Wells said she believes village council members are committed to increasing the hourly wage for full-time officers from the current $14.97.

Wardlow said she is trying to set up incentives, whether monetary or awards, for officers to take care of themselves physically and mentally.

She also wants to set up tuition and training reimbursement for officers.

“If they continue their education while they’re on the department, it builds the department as well as them,” Wardlow said. “That offers them the opportunity maybe to even get a higher education that they couldn’t have got without the assistance of the department or the village.”

But if other small departments can’t afford to raise wages for officers, municipalities have the option of contracting with the Licking County Sheriff’s Office, similar to how school districts contract with the office for school resource officers.

“It happens all across the state, but we just here have not crossed that bridge yet,” said Licking County Sheriff’s Office Colonel Chad Dennis of contracting with municipalities.

The sheriff’s office has been approached informally over the years about contracting with a township or village for a quote on the cost, but nothing has gone past the first phone call on the rough cost, Dennis said.

Dennis said the contract could be written to provide as many deputies for as many hours as the municipality wants.

“If you want someone there for eight hours a day, 16 hours a day or 24 hours a day that’s up to the township,” Dennis said. “If they said they wanted 24 hour coverage, then we would be responsible for providing them a contract which would cover that.”

If a municipality were to contract with the sheriff’s office, it would not need to have a chief or other management personnel because the officers would report to the sheriff’s office management team, Dennis said.

Licking County Commissioner Tim Bubb said sometimes small departments get good officers, but not always.

“Kirkersville’s been a good example lately where you’re sort of hiring whoever you can find at a discount rate and that might work out for you, but it might not,” he said. “To hire a full-time, trained sheriff’s deputy that has all the law enforcement credentials and the equipment and everything, you’re getting the real deal.”

But contracting does come at a cost. The municipality would have to pay for the salary and benefits for an officer. Dennis said the salary alone could be about $57,000. And the township or village would have to pay for a cruiser for the officer, which could be tens of thousands of dollars.

Wells said while she is grateful the sheriff’s office has provided deputies for special events and responded to calls in the village while Buckeye Lake rebuilds its department, she has not considered contracting with the sheriff’s office instead of having a village police department.

“I think every small town or village wants to know the people they’re dealing with and wants to build trust with their residents. That’s what we’re going to do,” she said.

The village wants to be responsive to its residents, she said.

“We know our residents better,” she said. “We want to provide them with good service they deserve.”

From The Newark Advocate