The Statesboro Police Department is currently short at least 17 sworn officers from its authorized force of 79, and City Council has begun to express urgency about filling the vacancies.
City Manager Charles Penny had noted the 17 police vacancies previously during a property tax hearing within the council’s Sept. 19 meeting. District 2 Councilmember Paulette Chavers brought the subject up again during the Tuesday, Oct. 3, regular session.
“Since our last council meeting it’s just been on my mind about, you know, police officers – we’re down 17 police officers – and like I indicated before, usually where the crime takes place is in District 2,” Chavers said, “and I feel as if we need to do some sort of push to fill these empty police officer spaces so that the police can do adequate patrol.”
During the Sept. 19 tax discussion, Chavers at first had said she supported the originally proposed 1.9-mill tax rate increase because she wanted to “get more police officers to manage the streets.”
But she ultimately joined the 4-0 vote in favor of a compromise 0.82-mill increase proposed by District 5 Councilmember Shari Barr. Besides, as District 1 Councilmember Phil Boyum had pointed out, the fiscal year 2024 budget, approved by the council in June and in effect since July 1, contained no special pay increases or other steps aimed specifically at recruiting more officers.
Even with the compromise tax rate, the budget still provides a 5% raise for all city employees and continues a pay-for-performance program with additional raises up to 4% based on annual evaluations. Everything else in the fiscal year 2024 budget is also fully funded, but with the smaller tax increase the projected spending is expected to exceed new revenue, reducing the city’s general-fund balance – currently a more than $7 million reserve – by a few hundred thousand dollars.
Tuesday, Chavers said she doesn’t know what the “push” to fill officer vacancies “would look like, maybe some incentives.”
Penny commented that Chief of Police Mike Broadhead and others in the Statesboro Police Department “are working hard, and we have approved some recruitment incentives.”
Penny said he had been surprised that the Statesboro Fire Department was able to fill 19 new firefighter positions created over the past two years. The council added nine firefighter jobs with local funding last fiscal year, and 12 more new firefighters were hired with funding from a federal SAFER, or Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, grant awarded to the SFD in February.
“But we had to try some things to get that done,” he said.
Beginning last month with Penny’s approval, the Police Department is offering a $1,000 signing bonus for new hires who will still need to attend the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) academy before being sworn in as officers. The city and SPD are also offering a $2,000 bonus for any newly hired officer who is already POST-certified.
Along with these bonuses, the department is offering current officers – command ranks and the recruiting sergeant aren’t eligible – a recruiting bonus of $1,000 if they recruit a new officer who needs to go to the academy or a $2,000 bonus if they recruit an already certified officer.
“The bonuses will be paid out when they take their oath,” Broadhead said.
Competing for cops
A shortage of qualified law enforcement officers and recruits is a national problem, Penny said. He and Broadhead, who did not speak during of this part the council’s discussion but was interviewed afterward, say Statesboro is facing competition for officers regionally, especially with higher salaries being offered in the Savannah area. As seen on that city’s website, the Savannah Police Department now offers a starting salary of $50,013, while the $22.02 hourly base wage shown in the city of Statesboro’s ads for police officers amounts to about $45,802 at 40 hours a week for 52 weeks.
The Georgia Ports Authority Police Department has also been competing to hire officers, and Broadhead said officers are right in thinking that working at the ports is less demanding and usually safer than policing city streets.
“Right now we’re losing that battle to the ports because the expectation on those port officers is not very high – they’re not dealing with a lot of calls for service, a lot of crime – and they’re able to pay pretty significant wages,” he said.
He confirmed that the Statesboro’s police force still had 17 “hard vacancies” as of Tuesday and indicated that the shortage of officers fully authorized to respond to calls and make arrests is actually greater.
The department has one officer out on medical leave, two who just graduated from the academy and now face four months of field training, another one whose field training is still in progress and two more recently hired and currently at the academy.
So, in effect, the department was “operationally short” 23 officers.
“The challenge we face is that we’re trying to provide services 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and so those numbers are stretched pretty thin,” Broadhead said. “Last year we handled almost 42,000 calls for service, and this year so far those numbers are higher. …
“As those operational numbers (of available officers) diminish, then each person is being asked to do more, which leads to more burnout or tiredness or people start looking around for equal money with less stress,” he said.
The Statesboro PD has a full-time professional standards sergeant, Sgt. Sneed Collins, for recruiting officers. A corporal is supposed to divide time between assisting Collins and assisting the department’s training sergeant, but the corporal’s position is currently vacant, Broadhead noted.
“We have a full-time person whose full-time job is to recruit people,” he said. “But the difficulty we find is, we can’t just have a hiring event for people to be employed right away because they have to be able to be certified through an outside state agency, POST, and they have a list of requirements that have to be met.”
The process involves psychological evaluation, polygraph testing and background checks. The department loses more than half of the applicants who express interest because they fail background checks or do not follow through with all of the steps, he said.
Won’t lower standards
“We’re not going to lower our standards when it comes to integrity and background issues just to fill our ranks,” Broadhead said. “I have a commitment to the citizens of this community that when they call the police, they’re going to get somebody who’s fully trained that they can trust.”
But he said there are some things the department is having to bend a little on, such as a prohibition on officers having tattoos and rules about how they wear their hair.
“I would love to do a hiring push,” Broadhead said. “If we could get 17 people in the door, that would be great, but it would still take us almost a year to get them fully operational, unless we were able to hire people laterally from other agencies who have already been to the academy.”
The starting salary for Statesboro police officers was just over $40,622 at the end of 2022. It has topped $45,000 after a $3,000 council-approved addition to salaries was provided for both the Police Department and Fire Department beginning in January, followed by the 5% raise for all city employees July 1.
Meanwhile, the Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office’s starting wage for patrol deputies amounts to $44,704 a year for regular weekly hours. The BCSO has 78 law enforcement positions, including road patrol, court services and school resource officers, investigators and crime suppression deputies, but not counting bailiffs and jailers. The agency currently has just one opening, in road patrol, Chief Deputy Bill Black stated Tuesday.