CHARLOTTE, NC — After months of negotiation, the Charlotte City Council agreed to give Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney nearly $6 million for new officers in summer 2016.
With that money, he could hire 125 more officers over the next two years. It was the first staffing increase for CMPD in nearly a decade.
But none of those new jobs have been filled, because the department is struggling to replace its retiring and resigning officers, CMPD Capt. Dave Johnson confirmed this week.
The department has had a net gain of just a few dozen officers since 2010, when it had 1,757 officers, according to an annual report.
Including two classes in training at the academy, the department has 1,801 officers employed as of Monday, out of 1,982 allocated spots, according to CMPD spokesman Lt. Brad Koch. That’s 181 vacancies.
The lack of staffing makes a difference for officers, Johnson acknowledged, even though the department is still meeting its basic goals for 911 response times and other metrics. There’s less flexibility to take time off, and the strain takes a toll on their mental and physical health.
“We try to spread the pain out … so it’s not as noticeable in any one place,” Johnson said, adding that the department can quickly transfer people to fill in gaps.
CMPD’s vacancy level has stayed around the same — just shy of 10 percent — in recent years, but department officials hope a massive new investment in marketing, along with other initiatives, will help turn the tide.
Departments around the country have struggled to fill their ranks, crediting anything from from negative public opinion about police to the country’s low unemployment rate — government jobs are steady but lower-paying, so they’re less appealing when the economy is strong.
CMPD is also facing the natural consequence of an early 1990s hiring boom. Dozens of officers are eligible to retire in the next couple of years, including a large chunk of the department’s command staff.
With the Republican National Convention coming up, the pressure is on for the department to retain officers where it can and hire more to fill all those vacancies.
NEW OFFICERS ARE EXPENSIVE
CMPD trainees spend six months in the police academy and another 14 weeks in field service training after that, Johnson said. They’re paid more than $1,600 per month during that time, only a little less than a young officer working on the street.
Altogether, it costs about $90,000 to move a single person from submitting an application to graduating from the academy, Johnson said.
Traditionally, after all that training, officers would stay with the department until they’re eligible to retire 30 years later.
When younger officers look for a new job after a couple of years, the return on investment is not great, said Rick Myers, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.
CMPD is also spending a lot of money to convince people to send in applications. Two years ago, Johnson said, he had a budget of $10,000 for basic recruitment costs, like making flyers and furnishing tents at job fairs.
This year, the department will spend about $140,000 on marketing and recruiting efforts. Much of the money is spent online, trying to attract young candidates devoted to their phones, Johnson said.
“We’ve got Google boosting, we’re spending a lot of money on that — Facebook and Instagram targeted content … we’re running Spotify ads in North and South Carolina,” he said.
CMPD’s application and hiring numbers are encouraging for Johnson — they were up about 25 percent in 2018, and he said he hopes to see a similar increase in 2019.
But the number of officers who quit or retired also increased in 2018. Johnson referred to the ongoing wave of retirements as an “exodus.”
Seventy-six officers retired in 2018 compared to 59 in 2017, according to CMPD, and 57 resigned in 2018 compared to 35 the year before. That’s a 33 percent increase in retirements and a 63 percent increase in resignations year over year.
Most resignations come from officers in their first seven years on the force, Koch said.
Providing a reason for leaving is optional at CMPD, but the largest chunk of officers who did so — seven in 2017, nine in 2018 — said they were pursuing a different career.
Part of the explanation is the strong economy, which is affecting police hiring and retention around the country, Myers said. Jobs in the private sector are lucrative and readily available at the moment — especially in Charlotte, where law enforcement experience can lead to a security role in the banking industry.
The spike in CMPD retirements is another issue, and it’s going to lead to a particularly high amount of change in CMPD’s top ranks in the next few years. While Putney has promised to stay on until the RNC is over next summer, he’d be eligible to retire in January based on his years of service and other factors, CMPD Lt. Brad Koch confirmed.
Many of his top deputies are also about to retire, and the department is making a particular effort to bring in external experience. Starting in fall 2017, the department began offering additional pay to officers who transfer from other departments.
CMPD gives the transferring officers four to six weeks of training compared to several months for a new recruit, which saves time and money. In 2018, the department hired 51 transfer officers — just short of Putney’s goal of 60.
Through spokespeople, Putney refused the Observer’s requests to interview him for this story.
Johnson said the department has made plans to prevent future waves of mass leadership retirements by promoting people strategically, with an eye toward diverse retirement dates.
He also thinks CMPD will reach full capacity at some point in the future — but it’ll take years. The department underestimated the effect of the current wave of retirements, he said.
“I think eventually we’ll catch up,” he said. “It’s like turning around a battleship. It’s just slow.”
WHERE’S THE MONEY?
City Council approved small raises for police officers last summer. A new recruit with a bachelor’s degree makes about $50,000, and officers are eligible for 5 percent raises each year for several years, according to city data.
But after five years on the force, raises decrease to 2.5 percent — a point of frustration for some mid-career officers.
Local police union president Mark Michalec said mid-career officers will be a focus in the next push for pay increases. That could help keep officers in Charlotte through retirement.
“They’re leaving before halfway,” Michalec said, referring to the midpoint of CMPD’s 13-step pay plan, which shows that officers generally earn about $14,000 more than their starting salary after 12 years on the force. Pay varies based on the officer’s education level, residency in Charlotte, language skills and other factors.
DRAWING IN RECRUITS
Some characteristics of today’s 20-somethings are a problem for police departments: They tend to change jobs often and have grown up around negative stories about police.
But Myers said the generation’s commitment to public service could be key, as long as they recognize police work as an option in that category.
Officers and potential recruits are still battling a “stigma” brought on by negative national stories, Michalec said.
“A lot of probably qualified individuals are hesitant to go into the field,” he said.
CMPD has made major adjustments in its recruiting tactics to appeal to young people, Johnson said — but recruiters don’t want to attract someone who wouldn’t be right for the job.
“You go into policing because it’s a calling, not because you want to get rich or famous,” Myers said.