Gadsden, Nation Deal With Police Shortage

On the City of Gadsden’s website, there’s a prominent link for employment opportunities with the city, and one longstanding post is for entry-level police and fire jobs.

It gives the dates that exams will be given, the deadline and how to submit an application, among other information.

Despite the job posting and numerous other recruiting methods, the Gadsden Police Department is constantly looking for new officers.

The problem of filling open police jobs has been discussed by the Gadsden City Council in recent months, but it was the focal point of a Public Safety Committee meeting earlier this week.

Police Chief Lamar Jaggears, along with several police captains, met with council members and the heads of a number of city departments to try to come up with solutions.

The Gadsden Police Department is funded for 106 positions, but it currently only has 92 of those filled, which also includes administration.

Jaggears has been Gadsden’s police chief for three years, and he said that in that time, the department has only been at its fully staffed number once — and that was only for about two weeks.

To give an example of how difficult hiring new officers can be, Personnel Director Jerry Gladden said 30 people are signed up for an upcoming entrance exam.

“That’s great,” he said. “However, I’d be surprised if 15 show up.”

Of that 15, he said only eight might pass the test, and of those eight, only four might pass the physical and agility test.

Then the final step is a background check.

“If we get one out of that group, we’ve done good,” he said.

Jaggears said in his opinion, Gadsden has “the most restrictive [hiring] policies of any law enforcement agency in this county.”

However, the problem is not only a local one.

A 2018 report from the U.S. Department of Justice shows that though the total number of full-time sworn officers nationwide rose by more than 53,000 from 1997 to 2016, the increase hasn’t kept up with population growth.

In 1997, there were 2.42 full-time sworn officers per 1,000 U.S. residents.

By 2016, that number had dropped to 2.17.

Even the raw number of officers is declining in recent years, dropping from about 725,000 in 2013 to just over 701,000 in 2016.

“It’s the perception of police, and these young people, these millennials, they want no part of it,” Gladden said.

While high-profile shootings and other incidents involving police may play a role, a police recruiter told National Public Radio last December that a hot job market with numerous openings also may be contributing to the lack of prospective officers.

A generational change in outlook is something the city is considering when looking for ways to increase interest.

“Y’all just don’t understand these millennials,” Gladden told the Public Safety Committee. “They’re totally different in their mindset and the way they think.”

Capt. Bobby Jackson echoed that sentiment.

“I tell you, some of these young guys, all they see is dollars,” he said. “They can’t see retirement. They don’t see benefits. They see a dollar amount.”

An increase in entry-level pay has been suggested by members of the public before, and Mayor Sherman Guyton is quick to point out that hourly pay doesn’t tell the whole story.

He has previously said that there are other benefits offered by the city beyond a paycheck, including insurance, retirement benefits and other perks like use of city vehicles.

Finance Director Lisa Rosser said even if they’re not a focal point for employees, those benefits are a real cost to the city.

She said that the city pays millions of dollars into the retirement system every year, and Gadsden has the second-highest retirement rate in the state.

Insurance also plays a part, and Rosser said the city covers 80% of that cost.

“If you have family coverage with the City of Gadsden, our premium is a little over $13,000 per family and the city pays a little over $11,000 of that premium,” Rosser said.

In Fiscal Year 2019, the city budgeted $9,730,140 for personnel in the police department with slightly more than $6.1 million for full-time and part-time employee pay and overtime costs.

The budget also included $1,194,259 for state retirement, and $1,518,000 was allocated for health and life insurance benefits.

Rosser said benefit costs can’t be ignored, but the perception hurdle is one that the city is going to have to overcome.

Jackson said that when he attends job fairs to recruit, potential applicants are more interested in other cities that offer a higher starting pay.

Some of the turnover in Gadsden is from officers leaving for another job, and Gladden said the city recently lost several officers to Oxford.

One suggestion from the committee is the use of hiring bonuses to lure new applicants. reported in 2018 that the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office offered $4,500 to new officers that became fully qualified and had satisfactory first-quarter reviews.

That department lacked 16 officers earlier that year but filled the vacancies within months.

A straight pay increase for entry-level officers is another possibility, but that likely would affect the whole department, which has a pay scale.

Last fall, the Gadsden Fire Department announced a new career tech program at Gadsden City High School aimed at introducing students to firefighting and helping them earn beginning training, but a similar program isn’t possible for the police department because of age regulations from the Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission.

Gladden said the department already has dropped the minimum age for applicants from 21 to 19, but that is as low as APOSTC will allow.

The issue of recruiting for Gadsden also isn’t something that is expected to go away anytime soon.

Jaggears estimated that about 25% of the department will be eligible for retirement in the next five years, though officers don’t necessarily retire as soon as they are able to.

In the meantime, he said the department has started cutting staffing in some cases, like not having a desk officer at the annex on nights and weekends.

Jaggears also said he’s trying to use overtime to address the situation, but that has limits based on availability and how many hours an officer has already worked.

“It just means people might have to wait a little longer for a response,” Jaggears said.

Any recommendations made by the Public Safety Committee on the issue will be brought before the full City Council.

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