As Lexington experiences a spike in nonfatal shootings and murders, it is also grappling with a shortage of police officers because of retirements, more job opportunities and what union officials say is inadequate support.
Since January 2020, 64 officers retired and an additional 28 have resigned prior to retirement age, according to city and police records.
That means the department is currently 104 police officers short of its 639 authorized strength.
Lexington Police Chief Lawrence Weathers said 34 cadets will graduate from the department’s training academy in November. After a fifteen-week extended training, those officers will be available to answer calls in March.
A second class will start hopefully later this fall or early winter, which will help fill vacancies, police say. In addition, the city budget includes money for another recruit class in the spring, which should allow the department to get up to or closer to full strength.
“This is the largest I’ve seen,” Weathers said of vacancies. “In 2016, we had a large number of people seek retirements.’
Because of the lack of officers, police response times have slowed, Fraternal Order of Police Bluegrass Lodge 4 President Jeremy Russell said. Average response time — from when a call came in to when an officer arrived — went from 9:13 minutes in April 2020 to 11:38 minutes in April 2021, according to data compiled by the FOP from police statistics. In July, the average response time grew to nearly 15 minutes.
The FOP is the police union that represents police officers.
Weathers said police are dispatched based on priority. Police response times for priority one calls — those involving violent crimes — are largely the same as they were in 2020 and 2019. In 2019, the average response times for priority one calls was 7:08 minutes. To date in 2021, the average response time for priority one calls is 7:10 minutes.
It is taking police, on average, a bit longer to get to victimless, nonviolent calls — “like abandoned car calls,” said Commander Chris Schnelle, executive officer in Weathers’ office.
Weathers said the police are making sure all patrol shifts are covered. “That’s our priority,” he said.
Although shootings are up, overall violent crime is down by about 1 percent from last year, Weathers said. Call volume is also down about 1 percent, he said.
To date, there have been 82 non-fatal shootings and 27 murders, including two on Sunday.
WHY ARE SO MANY OFFICERS LEAVING?
Police departments across the country are seeing a similar exodus of officers.
A June Police Executive Research Forum report showed a 45 percent increase in retirements and an 18 percent increase in resignations this year compared to the prior year. The nonprofit think tank surveyed 194 police departments across the country.
The forum’s report included excerpts from police administrators who responded to the survey. Most reported a similar trend: A large number of police officers who retire the first year they are eligible, instead of staying and maximizing their pensions. The national conversation about policing, accountability and race prompted by the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville have also led police officers to opt out of the profession, some respondents said.
Russell said many Lexington police officers no longer feel the community or city leaders support them.
“We need more support,” Russell said. “Without open support of the city leaders, the administration, the council and the citizens, we don’t feel like we can do our job.”
Mayor Linda Gorton has repeatedly said she supports the Lexington Police Department and has said it is one of the best departments in the country.
Russell said Gorton and the council could do more.
“She has said those things, but she could be more vocal,” Russell said. “They let people come in and crap all over us, and there is never a rebuttal.”
Gorton said she has always given the police department the tools it needs.
“Officers leaving to pursue other opportunities is certainly a great concern of mine … they have been through a lot over the past year,” Gorton said. “However, my support has never wavered. Over my long career on the council and as mayor, I have demonstrated my support for our police officers repeatedly. I made sure over all my years in public service that police had the resources they needed to do their jobs. In this year’s budget, I increased the police budget, when mayors in some other cities have decreased funding.”
Gorton served for 16 years on the Lexington council, four of those years as vice mayor, prior to being elected mayor.
Gorton did not support a ban on no-knock warrants but did not veto an ordinance outlawing their use after the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council voted narrowly to nix the practice in June. Gorton said she did not veto after Weathers said publicly that he would implement the ban if that’s what the public and the council wanted.
During the often contentious debate on whether to ban no-knock warrants, which allow police to enter a residence without knocking or announcing themselves, multiple council members voiced support for the Lexington Police Department.
Vice Mayor Steve Kay has also repeatedly said the issue of police reform and no-knock warrants was not about being pro or anti-police but about how the community wants to be policed.
The FOP also criticized protesters and council members via its social media accounts during the debate over no-knock warrants, prompting an outcry from some who said the FOP shouldn’t attack and target individuals.
Weathers said Gorton and the council have been supportive of the police department and have included additional money in the recently approved $401 million general fund budget for two recruit classes to fill police vacancies. Typically the city only has one recruit class per year.
“They are doing whatever they can to fill these positions,” Weathers said.
RETIREMENTS DRIVING EXODUS
Russell and police top brass agree a key factor driving the exodus is a large number of police officers who are eligible for retirement.
Russell said there are 74 officers currently eligible for retirement now.
Weathers said there are often ebbs and flows in hiring. For example, Schnelle was hired by the department in the late 1990s when there were federal incentives to hire more police officers. Those officers hired when federal incentives were available are now either close to retirement or eligible for retirement.
“There have been times when the police department was short, so there was a large amount of hiring. So when you do that, you have a large number of people reaching their retirement age,” Weathers said. “And that’s what we are seeing.”
Nearly 60 percent of the officers that left in 2021 had 20 plus years of service, Schnelle said.
But police are also leaving the department before they are eligible for their full pensions. Twenty-eight have resigned without reaching full retirement age. Another officer has put forward a resignation for early September, Russell said.
Russell said many are leaving to take other jobs with other law enforcement departments in the state. FOP records indicate of the 28 who have resigned prior to full retirement, 12 are working for other agencies.
“Some of our officers are leaving to go work for the Fayette County Public School system,” Russell said.
Weathers, who retired from the Lexington Police Department and went to work for the Fayette County Public Schools before returning in 2018 to become chief, agreed.
“Some are retiring and then going to work for another entity to earn extra money,” Weathers said. “They get a pension check, and they get a check from another agency, which I can’t blame them for that. The majority of the police officers I talk to, love it here. But it’s hard to pass that up.”
Some officers can make more at the Fayette County Public School system, depending on years of experience, than at the police department.
Russell said some officers are taking those jobs because it is less stressful and the hours are consistent. They can work largely 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and not have to work weekends, he said.
The FOP also says Lexington Police Department’s salaries and compensation are now starting to fall behind other smaller cities.
Weathers said a few years ago, Lexington, Louisville and Kentucky State Police were paying slightly less than the smaller agencies. Lexington, Louisville and Kentucky State Police raised their salaries to compete. The smaller agencies then raise their salaries to remain competitive.
“They raise salaries and then we raise our salaries,” Weathers said. But oftentimes, the difference in salaries isn’t necessarily enough for people to leave “unless they are from that area and may want to move back to that county.”
The FOP and the city are currently negotiating a new contract for sergeants and officers. Pay is a key part of that contract negotiation.
Russell and Weathers said the contract negotiations are ongoing but could not provide additional information on the status of the negotiations.
The pandemic has also taken a toll on officers, Russell said.
“There are a lot of people that are upset about working during COVID. Patrol gets the brunt of everything,” Russell said. Some officers, particularly single parents, struggled to find child care while working during the pandemic, also creating problems, he said.