Asheville Police ‘Overhiring’ To Cover Turnover

ASHEVILLE, NC – Mike Mathis liked being a police officer.

He liked Asheville’s new chief, Tammy Hooper. He liked his fellow officers.

But after a year and half on the force, the now 26-year-old Canton resident quit.

“I felt like it was an honorable position. You could serve people,” Mathis said. “But the risk-to-reward ratio for the job itself doesn’t equal out.”

Hearing veteran officers say they would leave if they hadn’t already invested so much time and talking to his new wife about buying a house and having kids, he left the police job that paid $17.60 an hour and got a position at Evergreen Packaging that pays $22. The new job meant he didn’t have an estimated $5,000 a year in gas and other car costs for the commute to Asheville, another big financial factor.

Soon, Mathis said he may leave his current job to “put on a different uniform, a brown one” and work for UPS, making $35.

“Law enforcement is a great profession, but you compare that to police pay, and I don’t see why you would want to be a cop,” he said.

Mathis is exactly the kind of case officials have an intense interest in as they grapple with a high turnover rate. That attrition is driving up overtime costs and forcing other officers to have to fill in the gaps, officials say. That, in turn, leads to officer burnout and even more attrition.

The attention to police turnover is happening as department leaders say they are struggling to keep up with Asheville’s expanding population of residents, commuters and tourists. Not only does the department need to slow turnover, which is averaging 15 percent, or 30 police a year among about 200 sworn officers, but the department also needs to grow, Hooper said.

The chief is requesting 15 more sworn positions at a cost of $1 million over the next two and a half years.

That request has faced pushback, including outright hostility from some anti-police activists.

The department is coping by essentially “overhiring,” tapping more recruits than it should need in the hopes of filling anticipated future gaps. Police officials are also trying slow the flow of officers out of Asheville.

“If we’re able to slow the attrition, then the timeline for getting enough people hired gets shorter,” Hooper said. “And one of the things we have to look at in terms of how we slow attrition is compensation.”

15 percent high?

There’s no easily available national average for police turnover, but Asheville’s rate of attrition seems high, experts and former police say.

Many throw out 10 percent as a typical number.

“I don’t know what everybody’s attrition rate is to be honest,” Hooper said. “What I can tell you right now is there is fairly high attrition across law enforcement in general.”

The chief, who came to Asheville in 2015 from her job as deputy chief in Alexandria, Virginia, said that department faced similar issues.

But that’s not because of a lack of people across the country wanting to be police, said John DeCarlo, a criminal justice professor at New Haven University in Connecticut and a former New York City officer and Connecticut police chief.

DeCarlo is one of the researchers on a project on police “mobility,” meaning movement between departments.

“We heard police were having trouble recruiting, but then when we actually looked at the numbers, we are seeing relatively the same numbers we were seeing in the past.”

At his university, DeCarlo said they have people “clamoring” to get into the police science programs.

With increased national scrutiny of police following recent high-profile civilian deaths, some might think fewer people want to be officers, but that hasn’t been the case during similar times in the past, he said.

“We didn’t see a diminishment of the number of people who wanted to be cops in the 1960s after the Watts riots and in the 1990s after Los Angeles.”

What is actually happening is officers are moving around more, he said, changing departments, though some do leave law enforcement entirely.

Pay is a key factor, particularly for young officers, he said.

For older officers, benefits like retirement funding and health insurance play a bigger role. DeCarlo pegs increased turnover to the national trend about a decade ago to do away with or reduce pensions or other retirement benefits.

“Instead of becoming vested in a retirement program, officers weren’t wedded to that police department any more.”

Follow the money

With less reason to focus on the long-term, salary becomes the driving issue for many officers.

Asheville trainees make $35,700 annually. Once they become full officers, they’re bumped to $37,531 with an increase to $38,400 after nine months.

If they stick around for a full year and a half they move to $39,400.

Nationally, the police median salary is $61,600, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s for both new and long-term officers.

The lowest 10 percent across the United States earned less than $34,970, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $102,750.

In some wealthier areas of the Northeast, in parts of eastern Pennsylvania, for example, new officers make about $60,000, said Vijay Kapoor, an Asheville City Council candidate who works as an independent budget consultant for cities, mostly in the Northeast.

Kapoor said he’d like to look around Asheville at other law enforcement salaries.

“But initially — yikes — that strikes me as kind of low,” he said.

For Mathis, the former officer from Canton, Asheville’s pay was above that in his previous department, the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office. But it still was lower than private sector jobs.

“To me, the top three paying jobs should be military, law enforcement and education. But they’re not,” he said.

As part of their inquiry into what is driving attrition, city officials will look at nearby departments’ pay, said Peggy Rowe, Asheville human resources director.

“The basic thing that any employer has to ensure is that your salary and benefits are competitive,” Rowe said.

Asheville police, like other city employees have a pension, something rare among private sector workers who may have a 401(k) retirement plan that can be volatile because it is based on the stock market.

Officers hired after 2012 do not have the health insurance benefit that senior officers receive that provides low-cost premiums for the rest of their lives, said Rondell Lance, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police.

Lance said instead of following pay and benefit trends of other departments, Asheville should do something that makes it more attractive.

“Give a pay differential if you work nights, for example. Or a pay differential if you speak another language.”

Other reasons to go/stay

Other changes could be letting officers take their cars home, so they don’t have to put miles on private vehicles, or switching their schedules so they get bigger chunks of time off, Lance said.

After the commuting expense, Mathis said scheduling also took a toll on him.

As a Haywood County deputy, he would get blocks of eight days off each month, he said. When he was at Asheville it was three days at the most. Since he worked a night shift, he spent much of the next day off sleeping, he said.

“And a lot of the days you had scheduled off, you had to be in training or in court.”

Current Asheville officer shortages and a high number of calls means a lot of overtime, officials say, adding up to $375,000 a year covered by taxpayers.

Police will often supplement salaries by picking up security shifts, helping block traffic for road races or monitor concerts. Those are relatively easy jobs, Lance said, but having to work extra patrol shifts is harder and wears officers down.

Another troublesome aspect has been a sense of heavy scrutiny from supervisors, Lance said.

That has changed much for the better under Hooper, the Fraternal Order of Police president said. But there are still some remnants of what he called a micro-managing attitude.

“For example, you make one mistake on a report, and it gets kicked back at you,” Lance said.

More: Is Asheville police advisory group worth it or wasted time?

One of the main reasons Hooper was brought in to replace former Chief William Anderson was to improve a deep-seated morale problem and bad relationships between patrol officers and supervisors.

Those issues seem to have disappeared in recent years with other topics, such as body cameras and race relations dominating the conversation.

Housing, anti-cop atmosphere?

There are other local conditions that can affect an officer’s decision to stay or go.

A high cost of living means it can be tough to get by on a police salary, particularly for a rookie cop.

At her former job in the Washington suburbs, there was “workforce” housing where public service professionals such as police, firefighters and teachers could find affordable rent, Hooper said. There are ongoing efforts to build up similar housing stock in Asheville, but the chief said most of her officers commute.

“We don’t have many officers who live in the city,” she said.

Hooper said she wasn’t sure what was “on the table” in terms of housing for police, but that would be a separate conversation.

A sense to community support and appreciation is also important, said the former chief and professor DeCarlo.

“In any job, people need to feel appreciated. It’s not just, ‘OK, I’m going to give you a raise.’ I’m going to give you recognition.”

Hooper, Lance and others agreed.

“They’re dedicating their lives to protecting and serving the communities they work in, so the idea of what they do being appreciated by the community is important,” the chief said.

“I think the broad community definitely supports the APD, but there is obviously a vocal minority who don’t support police, who have stated they are going to militantly oppose the police.”

Many in that camp came to a City County budget public hearing on Tuesday to speak against Hooper’s $1 million request. Among the most confrontational was a speaker who read aloud a long description of the pig as a species and others who said policing was an arm of state violence and had roots in slave-catching and protecting landed gentry.

The cost of policing

Some, though, simply questioned the expenditure on law enforcement instead of public transit or anti-poverty programs, which they said would do more to lower crime.

Others wanted more clarity on costs.

South Asheville council candidate Kapoor said he wasn’t against expanding the force, but thought 15 officers seemed like a lot. Kapoor said he wanted to know more about the short- and long-term costs.

“I think it’s helpful to see a plan for recruiting. I’m not clear on the budgetary impact of that. And I would also encourage the department to look at other police resources,” Kapoor said. “I mean, do they have officers doing things behind a desk who could be redeployed onto the street?”

Facing pushback from activists and concerns from some council members about tax increases, Hooper stretched out her initial request, from one year to a longer two-and-a-half-year time frame.

If approved, the fiscal year starting July 1 would include $567,807 for the new hires. There would also be $380,400 spent for new cars for the officers.

Hooper said she would take most of that money from other parts of the department budget allocated for things such as uniforms and equipment. Some of it would come from cost savings by not having to pay overtime. A total of $187,807 would be skimmed from other departments to help pay for the recruits.

Meanwhile, right now there are 14 trainees who, if they succeed, could join the force in June, helping fill the 22 vacancies.

Further back in the pipeline, 15 people are in basic law enforcement training. Those who graduate in June and choose to move forward could become full officers after six to seven more months of classroom and field training.

It’s not clear if council members will support the request for the 15 new officer positions. Some have said they are more concerned with the current vacancies. Most recently, two council members, including a chief critic of department expansion, said they would back higher police salaries.

On Friday, Brian Haynes, the one council member to repeatedly say he opposes the $1 million police request, said he hopes the department is able to fill the vacancies and stanch the outflow of officers.

“I have felt that we should fill the current vacancies before seeking additional police staff,” he said. Though he’s opposing the 15 new officers, Haynes said, “I am not against increasing wages in order to slow the attrition rate.”

Cecil Bothwell, the chairman of the council’s public safety committee, said he too would support raises if a comparison with nearby departments warrants it.

“I’d vote for raises,” Bothwell said. “Turnover is expensive.”

Hiring a police officer

Hiring a police officer is unlike finding an employee for any other job and can be an arduous process.

Would-be officers undergo background checks, a year of classroom and field training, physical requirements, a lie detector test and a check on personal finances.

Asheville’s schedule is this: five months of basic law enforcement training, usually at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College; then a month of in-house classroom training by the department; followed by five to six months of field training where the trainee is accompanied on patrol by a sworn officer.

And at any stage a candidate might decide the job isn’t for him or her and bow out — or fail to meet requirements.

Because of the difficult process, it’s in the interest of a police department to keep the officers it hires.

From The Citizen-Times

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