Along with reducing crime, D.C.-area police forces are having trouble retaining veteran officers and filling open positions. A county council report created for the council’s Public Safety Committee in Montgomery County, Maryland, highlights the issues.
The patrol services division has 836 positions, according to information provided to the committee on Monday by police chief Marcus Jones. He stated that 722 of those are now filled. According to Jones,
“These are your first responders; these are the individuals who are answering the 911 emergency calls and that are on patrol 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
The council staff report states that in 2022, resignations and retirements increased by 64%. 10% of sworn officers are vacant, and more than 30% “are eligible for some type of retirement.” The number of people applying to become police officers has decreased by 38% since 2017, making the staffing issue worse.
According to Jones, the police department received a lot of applications around the middle of the 1990s. “Back in those days, there were recruit classes of 80,” he recalled. Assistant police Chief Darren Francke told the panel,
“Back when I came on 26 years ago, there were anywhere from 2,500 to 4,000 people applying for a session.”
“Our most recent classes, we had anywhere from 300 to 400 people apply for a session, and we have many openings.”
The study states that each of the most recent recruit classes contained roughly 15 recruits.
Jones was sure that there are always enough patrol police on duty, but there have been instances where detectives have been told to wear their uniforms to work “in order to supplement the patrol officers, should there be that need.” According to Jones, this occurs when situations call for a significant police presence, like protests or the shooting at Magruder High School in January 2022.
Issues That Prevent Hiring
Apart from the COVID-19 outbreak, George Floyd’s death while in the custody of the Minneapolis police, and the ensuing discussions about policing, according to Francke, there are several barriers to recruiting. Some of them, he claimed, is generational.
“We have found that our young workers have changed a bit. They look for a work-life balance and don’t see that in shift work all the time. They don’t see that in having to work holidays,” according to Francke.
The county’s test criteria were raised to 70% to reduce the number of applicants when the department was flooded with applications. Francke, however, claimed the department discovered that many candidates, particularly those who identify as minorities, felt their test scores to be a hindrance.
He said the threshold has been changed to what it was before, but said, “Let me be clear on this, we are not lowering our standards. We are not lowering the standards to become a Montgomery County police officer.”
The department has also discovered that candidates sometimes fail skills assessments like driving. Francke stated that it is a generational issue as well.
“It seems odd to say that we have people who fail driving, but the reality is these young folks, some of them have never driven before. Mom and Dad have driven them, they take public transportation or they’ve Uber-ed. They just haven’t driven a car before, let alone a big car with a big engine in it,”
Like those operated by the department’s patrol division, the agency has long struggled with Montgomery County’s high cost of living compared to nearby counties. Jones admitted to the panel that he had some sticker shock when he moved from Richmond, Virginia, to Montgomery County.
“I knew it was a higher cost of living,” Jones said. “I didn’t realize it was that high!”
Jones informed the committee that 40% of his department’s members reside outside the county.
Francke stated that to be successful,
“We need to recruit like we’re a Division 1 college football team, and we need to go after the best and the brightest with whatever we can.”
Signing bonuses, like those employed in D.C., Prince George’s County, and Anne Arundel County, are one of the tactics under consideration. They seem to have worked well in the military, according to Francke, and
“We also see results in our own backyard that it has potential.”
Francke asserts that Anne Arundel County’s $20,000 hiring bonus program has successfully filled a recent recruit class.
Communications During An Emergency
The county’s Emergency Communications Center, where civilian workers are trained to answer all 911 and police non-emergency service calls, is another public safety sector that faces hiring and retention difficulties.
The county council staff report states 198 authorized positions at the emergency communication center. There are 65 available spots, which is a 34% vacancy rate. Longer wait times for 911 and emergency lines are the effect of the staffing deficit. Emergency response times increased by 46 seconds in the last year to 9 minutes and 20 seconds.
The Emergency Communications Center’s Cassandra Onley told the panel that it was essential to inform people when to dial 911.
She claimed that every call is answered by her team, even though many of them could have been sent to a different department or non-emergency line. However, the public frequently uses 911 as a last resort, maybe because “We don’t close. We’re always there,” Onley said.
To inform the public about how their calls are handled and what dispatchers genuinely do, it could be possible to set up a monthly Zoom with a dispatcher. They only stated that although we don’t solve crimes,
“Hollywood does a good job of putting out there their perception of what it is, but we don’t solve crimes.”
A professional social worker is on-site to provide mental health support for the workers, who generally never find out how the call they responded to was resolved because of the high-stress level of their job, answering desperate pleas for help. The people who handle 911 calls are
“facing burnout. It’s call, after call after call,” Onley said. “The mandatory overtime is also crushing my staff.”
She stated that phone takers currently work 12-hour shifts. According to Onley, employees work two days and take two days off each week, with every other weekend off.
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Councilwoman Kristin Mink inquired how frequently ECC employees are required to work overtime, and Onley said without hesitation, “Typically every day.” The lack of staff is made worse by COVID-19 and staff members on sick or family leave. They only stated that.
“Just the life stuff that happens, it is having an impact.”
According to Onley, it’s critical to staff up so that workers aren’t continuously left wondering if they’ll have to work additional four hours due to staffing shortages.“Sometimes they get it because emergencies do happen,” Onley said, but the uncertainty makes an already stressful job even more difficult.
According to Onley, hiring and retention incentives may help recruit and retain employees. She added that benefit might help with employment difficulties. She also mentioned that in Maryland, Montgomery County is one of only two counties where those who answer 911 calls “do not have a retirement” and are not eligible for pensions.
Although the county has tried to speed up the hiring procedure for emergency call takers, the issue has not been resolved. According to the report, the county scheduled 346 applicants for testing, but 236 withdrew their applications or failed to appear for the exam. Thirty-five people who took exam 110 passed it.
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