In January, Lt. Roger Marks, head of recruitment for the Bismarck Police Department, had an interview scheduled with a midcareer officer from Williston. But in the days leading up to it, the job candidate canceled.
The officer said he would have accepted a pay cut, but what the Bismarck police offered wasn’t enough.
“The pay differential was too much,” Marks said.
North Dakota’s capital city is struggling to retain and recruit police. Most of its officers lack experience, and the number of applicants this year is the lowest in almost a decade.
Most local law enforcement officials say the salaries the department offers haven’t been competitive with other cities in North Dakota. In response, city commissioners last month allocated more than half a million dollars toward adjusting police and fire department salaries.
Local officials hope the funds, planned for next year’s budget, will make the Bismarck Police Department’s wages competitive with police officer salaries in Fargo, the state’s largest city. The department also wants to compete with police officer pay offered in cities in western North Dakota — where salaries in general increased during the region’s recent oil boom.
“That was a plan to help alleviate some of those issues,” Bismarck Deputy Police Chief Jason Stugelmeyer said. “It is not a full fix; it helps with what we are trying to accomplish.”
Bismarck isn’t alone when it comes to recruiting officers — even cities that Bismarck competes with are having issues.
“Fargo is hiring, Grand Forks is consistently hiring,” said Mitch Wardzinski, president of the North Dakota Fraternal Order of Police. “It’s something that’s seen everywhere. And it’s not just big cities — it’s even small counties. Or even counties out in the western part of the state affected by oil.”
Lack of experience
Fifty eight of Bismarck’s 127 officers have served five years or fewer, according to the department’s data. Marks said about a third of those officers have served fewer than two years. Two years is what it takes for an officer to be “fairly comfortable” working at the department, according to Stugelmeyer.
“There’s an eight-to-twelve-month training process we need to get officers through, depending on what experiences they had coming into the department to get themselves self-sufficient,” Stugelmeyer said. “The nationwide average to get a well-rounded, well-trained officer that’s comfortable doing a basic patrol officer function is five to seven years.”
The Bismarck Police Department is down seven officers from being at full staff. Even if those positions were filled, the number of officers actually deployed in the field would still be short of ideal.
“We have 17 who are not boots-on-the ground, or being productive on their own,” Stugelmeyer said. “Our call volume is pretty high in Bismarck. We have these peak times where (deployed officers) are running call-to-call-to-call and not getting a lunch.”
And having overworked and tired police can “cause officers not to make the best decisions,” Stugelmeyer said. “We have officers who rotate shifts, they are working nights, and are working long 12-hour shifts. And then sometimes you get off a night shift and you have court and have got to get up for court during the daytime and then work your night shift that you are assigned that night.”
Bismarck police experienced a 13% turnover rate in 2018, according to city data. This year, turnover was 6% through June. In the past 12 months,12 officers — not including three who retired — have left the force. Four of the departed officers moved to other cities in western North Dakota, including Beulah, Watford City and New Town.
Competition from the west
Out of the four officers who moved west, two took private-sector jobs in Watford City, where companies offer lucrative pay. One officer joined the Beulah Police Department, accepting a $2,700 raise, according to Bismarck Human Resources Director Robert McConnell. The pay the Bismarck department offers is lower than salaries offered by smaller law enforcement agencies in the region. And police officials say this has had a negative impact on Bismarck’s ability to attract applicants.
Bismarck offers a $49,180 entry-level police salary, while the Dickinson Police Department offers $51,584 as an initial salary. The Watford City Police Department offers $59,851 and the Williston Police Department $63,383 as starting pay.
Williston Investigations Capt. Steve Gutknecht said that city had to increase police salaries during the oil boom.
“The cost of living went up astronomically just to pay rent and afford it. And our officers making that new salary were not able to afford to live here anymore, so some of them left the area if they didn’t want to conform and join the oil fields somehow,” Gutknecht said about the department’s $40,640 salary in 2011. “So we had to make amends to that.”
Bismarck’s law officer starting salary also falls short compared to its eastern counterparts, according to Bismarck police data. The starting pay for the Fargo Police Department is $54,142, while the Grand Forks Police Department offers $51,347.
“We feel like we are crunched because we can’t compete with the western departments because oil is big and there’s a different tax base there,” Stugelmeyer said. “But now there’s (also) the eastern part of the state making some changes.”
Competition from the east
The Fargo City Commission reduced its 13-step salary system for its police department to nine this year, allowing officers to have their salaries increased from $54,142 to $80,101 in nine years. The city made the change to meet population growth in the area and to compete with West Fargo, which adopted a nine-step model, according to Sgt. Tom Morris.
“We were having trouble with people coming here taking 110 calls for service and not making enough compared to some of the smaller agencies they could go to,” Morris said. “We found our starting-out wages were pretty comparable and actually very good, but when you got to the higher end of our pay scale, it actually wasn’t as good as a lot of places.”
Meanwhile, the Bismarck Police Department works on a merit-based system, where employers can give additional pay to officers who take initiative.
“We have officers at the Bismarck PD who are fairly good performers that have been there for 20 to 22 years, and they haven’t met the max yet,” Stugelmeyer said. “So they look at their job, and then they look at Fargo and say, ‘Well, if I worked in Fargo, I would’ve maxed out in eight years.’”
This year, Bismarck police received an average of 10 applicants per recruitment drive — the lowest number of applicants in at least eight years. In 2016, that average was 29, before dropping to 27 last year.