With Mount Airy officials set to gather later this week for a two-day planning session on budget and other priorities, a retired police chief hopes they’ll see fit to address an apparent urgent situation in that department.
“There is one problem that has escalated into a crisis — this problem is the inability to recruit and retain suitable candidates for the position of police officer,” Roger McCreary stated in releasing results of recent research by him on salary scales.
It reveals the starting pay for city officers (slightly more than $29,000) to be the lowest among 35 different law enforcement agencies surveyed.
“This must be a priority for the board of commissioners during this budget development,” the former police chief wrote in his accompanying statement regarding the workshop, or retreat, the board will hold Thursday and Friday along with municipal staff members.
He said the police compensation should be part of attempts during the planning session “to identify city needs and problems and address them in a responsible manner.”
McCreary’s pay study and concerns about Mount Airy’s lower level comes at a time when the city has had trouble filling vacancies in the police department, a problem that has persisted over the past couple of years.
In late January when two new officers were sworn in, Police Chief Dale Watson said the department still had six openings on a force containing 41 sworn officers at full capacity.
“Dangerous” for community
“I believe that as of the time of this letter, the Mount Airy Police Department is seven officers short of being fully staffed,” McCreary said in his statement released last Thursday.
“The Mount Airy Police Department has been short of officers for many months,” added McCreary, who retired as chief in 2009 after a 28-year career with the force in which he began as a patrolman and worked his way up through the ranks.
“This situation is dangerous to the community and for officers of the department,” said the former police official who has maintained close contact with it since his 2009 retirement, when he was replaced by Watson.
“The department is currently juggling overtime and schedules to try to answer calls and continue to provide excellent service. Working in an environment that is constantly short-handed is stressful and dangerous.”
Two more new officers are scheduled to be sworn in this afternoon at City Hall, which yet leaves five vacancies based on McCreary’s figure.
In January, the commissioners approved a new incentive program aimed at offsetting the present openings in the department and providing a solid personnel pool for the future.
Under the program, police recruits who complete a background check and other initial steps can become a temporary employee of the city, which pays for their Basic Law Enforcement Training (BLET). It also allows them to receive a stipend every two weeks based on a pay rate of $12.10 per hour and 80 hours of training.
In exchange, the arrangement contractually obligates the officers to work for Mount Airy for two years.
The new program addressed a hardship situation that sometimes forced qualified police applicants to work night jobs in order to make ends meet while attending the daytime BLET courses.
Pay a key issue
Despite the new program, a remaining elephant in the room is the pay new officers receive when they complete training and hit the streets, as mirrored by concerns cited by former chief McCreary.
He says that figure of slightly more than $29,000 annually — lowest among 35 different law enforcement agencies in the area and state which were surveyed — constitutes a major competitive disadvantage for Mount Airy.
“These are the very agencies that the Mount Airy Police Department is competing against every time a young man or woman is deciding where to begin a career in law enforcement,” McCreary pointed out. “It is basically a matter of supply and demand.”
• Part of his research focused on municipalities similar in size to Mount Airy, listed with a population of 10,361.
Those include Siler City, where the beginning police officer pay is $37,924 for the community of 8,552 residents; Dunn, $33,550, population 9,599; Washington, $32,136, 9,639; Belmont, $32,657, 10,954; Tarboro, $30,532, 11,066; Smithfield, $34,863, 11,102; Spring Lake, $32,664, 11,777; Mebane, $38,271, 12,623; Southern Pines, $34,000, 13,461; and Morganton, $34,830, 16,710.
• McCreary also listed the starting police pay for a cross-section of other municipalities, including Yadkinville, $35,469; Boone, $37,410; Greenville, $40,872; Greensboro, $35,556; Durham, $34,738; Duck, $35,507; Wilmington, $36,123; Holly Springs, $42,523; Winston Salem, $35,549; Wake Forest, $40,490; Knightdale, $41,497; Burlington, $35,006; Henderson, $31,352; Mooresville, $39,650; Graham, $38,190; Clayton, $36,801; Jacksonville, $34,850; New Bern, $33,590; Statesville, $34,649; and High Point, $36,585.
• Also surveyed were various state and county agencies, including the N.C. Highway Patrol, $34,190; State Bureau of Investigation, $41,125; N.C. Alcohol Law Enforcement, $35,635; the Virginia State Police, $36,200 (with legislation in the works to bring that to $43,000); and the Patrick County (Virginia) Sheriff’s Office, $35,328.
Job demands more
While a person’s career choice can be guided by more than financial compensation, McCreary suggests that higher pay makes a difference given the pressures of modern law enforcement.
“The problem of recruiting police officer trainees is complex — the job is extremely difficult for a variety of reasons,” the retired police chief commented. “The dangers inherent in this line of work have long been documented; the pressures on families from having to deal with rotating shifts and holiday work is tremendous; the daily onslaught of negative news stories from around the nation has led to a huge reduction in the number of quality candidates; police agencies nationwide are struggling to fill vacancies.”
Against a backdrop of recent publicity surrounding officer-related issues, the Mount Airy citizenry is solidly behind its police force, McCreary contends.
“The recent explosion of police officers being attacked and killed by ruthless criminals across this nation has had a very real counter-reaction locally — there has been an outpouring of support from the local community towards the members of the local police department that shows a compassion and concern for these officers,” he says in his statement.
“It is time that the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners realizes that the community is behind the police department and takes immediate steps to remedy this (pay) situation.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.