Outgoing Garland Police Chief Mitch Bates says the current recruiting environment in North Texas makes for “the most challenging time ever.”
That’s not for lack of city support, said Bates, who has spent 16 years as Garland’s chief. Officers have seen four consecutive years of pay increases of more than 3 percent. The department has grown 10 percent over those years to 355 officers.
The region’s growth has fueled such public-safety investments in Garland and other North Texas cities. Population growth and an apparently declining interest in law enforcement careers — especially lower-level jobs — among qualified candidates has made the police expenditures necessary, officials say. And soaring property tax revenue has made those commitments possible.
But officials fear trouble ahead. Combined with the recruiting challenges, police groups and city leaders say the continued push for caps on state property taxes in Austin threatens the public-safety recruiting atmosphere.
“The state gives Texas cities almost no aid for law enforcement,” said Bennett Sandlin, Texas Municipal League executive director. “An artificial cap on city revenue, if passed by the Legislature, would potentially hit public safety the hardest of any city service areas.”
Some cities already feel a pinch trying to meet police demands. In Dallas, for instance, the police department has struggled to reach the city’s hiring and retention goals as the department has shrunk in recent years.
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings says police work is the hardest job in the country. And with the expectations and scrutiny being placed on officers, he said, fewer are willing to sign up even as the pay becomes more lucrative.
“In the Dallas area and the suburbs around Dallas, we are in the best times in history right now,” Rawlings said. “We’re growing. We have the resources and are putting the resources in the right place. Citizens want to spend the money on public safety.”
The push for police has manifested in higher salaries in many North Texas departments. Officers in fast-growing McKinney, for instance, saw their median base pay rise 22 percent to $80,100 between 2013 and 2017, according to an analysis by The Dallas Morning News. Other ranks climbed by even higher percentages.
Richardson’s median officer pay increased 31 percent during the same period. Lewisville was up 17 percent and Irving’s median pay 17 percent. Plano’s salaries have shot up 13 percent, with median pay now around $87,600 a year.
Plano Police Chief Greg Rushin said he’s fortunate his city’s leaders have made the department’s pay among the best in the state. But he still has to get creative with recruiting, treating it “more like sports” than in the past.
And other cities are trying to bring in the same potential officers. In Mesquite, which has had slower growth than other cities in the region, Chief Charlie Cato has needed new officers to replace an aging department.
“We were having a significant number of retirements,” Cato said. “And when the job market is strong, these jobs are harder to fill.”
Cato believes Mesquite’s 2014 commitment to a training academy has been both a lure for new officers and a way for them to bond within the department, which previously utilized a regional training academy in Arlington.
And the city’s pay is competitive: New officers in Mesquite make $60,000 a year. But the latest generation to enter the workforce is also more likely to change jobs, even in law enforcement, where single-department careers are common. Mesquite’s new program to entice lateral transfers has drawn 10 employees from other departments — including six from Dallas, where Cato was formerly the No. 2 cop to former Chief David Brown.
All told, the Mesquite department has managed to close its gap and has only two vacancies among 234 officer positions. Mesquite also approved the largest property tax hike among major cities in North Texas for 2019.
Downside of competition
But as cities compete in strong economic times, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement says others are losing.
“From what we see, it’s geographic,” said Gretchen Grigsby, government relations director of the commission. “Rural agencies can’t pay as well and find a lot more movement for people looking for a salary bump. Major agencies and the state level pay a little better and keep people on consistently.”
The result is a buyers’ market for the applicants and a struggle for entities that can’t compete as well.
Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association, said lateral transfers and other incentive measures fail to “address the underlying problem.”
“Eventually, the pool of applicants becomes too small,” he said.
The Dallas City Council, seeing some of its younger officers jump at higher-paying gigs in neighboring cities, recently voted to raise starting pay to $60,000 to become more competitive. That marked a huge increase from a few years ago, when rookie cops were paid in the low-$40,000 range.
But the boost also meant Dallas couldn’t cut its property tax rate as much as the city manager initially proposed. The growth in property values still allowed the city to make a rate cut and pay more in salaries.
Such decisions might become more difficult in future years depending on how property tax legislation shakes out.
Last session, proposals to cap property tax revenue growth eventually failed, but legislators have vowed to take up the issue again next year.
“The taxpayers’ ability to pay has to enter this equation somewhere,” said Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who introduced the Senate legislation in 2017. “It’s just not rational.”
Taxes, he said, have increased too much in recent years.
Gov. Greg Abbott has called for legislation with an annual revenue increase cap of 2.5 percent in 2019. His proposal allows for cities to go above 2.5 percent for public safety, among other categories, but still has an artificial cap tied to inflation, population growth and other factors.
“If you need more, you can still go to the public and get it voted on,” Bettencourt said. “If they said, ‘We still need some body armor,’ could you see the public turning that down?”
But Rawlings said he disagrees with the philosophy that “somebody in the state House can make a better decision about that than the local officials.”
“That is just fundamentally mistaken and wrong,” he said. “It’s illogical. The cities are the tip of the spear on public safety. We have to spend the money.”
Lawrence of the Texas Municipal Police Association echoed that assessment. He said his group has become strange bedfellows with city and county leaders on the tax cap issue.
“We believe those kinds of decisions are made best at the local level,” he said.
Jailers and fare enforcers
Of particular concern for North Texas and law enforcement officials are lower-level jobs — traditionally pipelines for police agencies.
Nobody gets into law enforcement to become a jailer, said Rockwall County Commissioner Lee Gilbert. And it’s showing up in short staffing numbers. His county and Collin County have had to spend large amounts of overtime at their county jails.
Dallas Area Rapid Transit also is trying to tap into that entry-level market heavily as it adds 26 fare enforcement positions in the next fiscal year.
DART has filled its 10 new police officer openings for 2019 and has only three vacancies, which Chief James Spiller said is the best situation he’s seen in 13 years as chief. Like the suburban chiefs, Spiller credits his governing body for providing competitive pay and benefits.
Spiller said some become fare enforcers with DART for the taste of police work. That gives the agency a natural pipeline that others might not have.
“Some come in wanting to be police officers, but they’re not sure,” he said. “We try to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to move up in the organization.”
But lower-level jobs at other agencies aren’t as easy a sell. Mesquite came up five employees short this month after two open houses pushing dispatch positions. The median salaries for a “dispatcher II” have gone up 17 percent since 2013 to just below $44,000 annually.
The chief said those positions are critical.
“One thing I’ve learned about this profession is that there aren’t any unimportant jobs,” Cato said.