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South Florida Sun Sentinel

Singing the blues: Law enforcement departments struggle with hiring and retaining officers

By Eileen Kelley, South Florida Sun-Sentinel,


Brandon Diaz was driving around the north side of Chicago when a blank billboard caught his attention. The summer-like, autumn weather would soon give way to gray skies and bone-chilling temperatures, and Diaz, the head of the Fort Lauderdale police union. came up with a plan to capitalize on that. The end goal was to lure cold, COVID-restricted Chicago police officers to sunny, freedom-touting South Florida .

On Dec. 3, the appeal to police officers in the Windy City rose above the highway: “Wish you were here! WE’RE HIRING. .” The message is blanketed with a background of palm trees and the ocean, and a Fort Lauderdale police cruiser perches prominently along the beach in the foreground.

That very day, three Chicago police officers sent Diaz photos of their completed applications. The next day there was more interest. Even more followed.

The Fort Lauderdale Police Department, as well as numerous other law enforcement agencies across the nation and state, have been fighting crime with lower-than-usual staff numbers on their staffs. The South Florida Sun Sentinel talked to more than a dozen experts inside and outside of local police departments, who said there are four main reasons for the low number of officers in recent years:

  • Law enforcement hiring is often cyclical. When the economy is good, young people don’t tend to turn to government jobs. The same goes for the military, often a pipeline for employment in police work after military service.
  • Law enforcement hiring is often affected by social unrest such as the Rodney King beating by police, the uprising in Ferguson, Mo., and the death of George Floyd, and the negativity about police that follows.
  • There’s been a high number of recent resignations, possibly due to the current negativity associated with the profession. Retirement is also up as masses of law enforcement officers who joined agencies experiencing growth spurts in the 1990s reach retirement age.
  • The younger generation isn’t as interested in law enforcement as previous generations .

The way Diaz sees it, the help cannot come soon enough as agencies grapple with police staffing shortages, forcing administrators to shuffle positions, cancel previously scheduled time off, and force extra shifts on its rank-and-file. The results are cop burn-out, low morale and unexpected departures as a legion of police officers, many too young to retire, join the now all too familiar Great Resignation of 2021 , a term used to describe a voluntary mass exodus from the workforce.

“I don’t care where the officers come from. If we can get the officers that are capable and we can get them on the road faster, that’s what we want. We just want those officers to be on the road quicker and give my guys some relief and some help,” Diaz said.

What’s behind the shortage?

The International Association of Chiefs of Police says multiple social, political and economic forces acting in concert led to what it calls a state of crisis in the country. Which begs the question: Has the time-honored glamor of wearing a badge worn off?

“Yes, but it took many years in the making,” said Marshall Jones, a retired police officer. Jones is an associate professor at the Florida Institute of Technology in Brevard County. He specializes in police recruiting, field training and retention.

Negative attitudes toward police and policing, and increased scrutiny of police use-of-force cases, have made many officers question if they want continue being a police officer, according to Lorie Fridell, criminology professor at the University of South Florida and past director of research for the Police Executive Research Forum.

A 2021 study conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum found a 45% increase in retirements in 2020 compared to the previous year and an 18% jump in resignations. The study also found there was a 5% decrease in new hires.

Gov. Ron DeSantis hopes to sign into law a plan that gives $5,000 signing bonuses for new recruits or experienced officers from other states willing to come to Florida.

Jones thinks the governor’s proposal could be a good draw for a legion of officers across the country who feel undervalued after a 2020 summer of unrest in major cities following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.

“Is Florida [trying to] capitalize on officers leaving from other states by sweetening the pot? Yes, he is sweetening the pot,” Jones said.

Nearly 80% of agencies surveyed by national police chiefs’ association said finding qualified applicants to fill the openings has been difficult.

When fully staffed, Fort Lauderdale has 530 positions, and now is down 20 positions. In the past it’s been down as many as 40, Diaz said. Other South Florida agencies are down as well. Delray Beach is staffed at 90% and has 10 openings for police officers; Pembroke Pines has 25 vacancies and is staffed at 91%. In Palm Beach County, the school district’s police department has 60 job openings for police officers. If fully staffed, the department would have 319 sworn officers.

Even the state’s law enforcement agencies are struggling to make do with dozens of unfilled spots. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has 521 sworn positions and 65 of them are vacant. That’s 12.5% under-staffed. The state agency has struggled for years to fill openings with law enforcement officers that have about four to five years of prior policing experience said Gretl Plessinger, a spokeswoman for the agency.

Driving that difficulty is starting pay of $45,800. That pay level has remained the same since 2006, Plessinger said. But that could change. DeSantis is requesting $400 million in new funding in the next budget not only to try to lure out-of-state cops but to increase pay for Florida Department of Law Enforcement officers, prison guards, state wildlife officers and the Florida Highway Patrol. The increase would be by 20% for new hires and 25% for officers already on staff. This too could spell good news for the Florida Highway Patrol, which has 203 vacancies or 10% of its expected force.

In 2019 the chiefs of police association polled a selection of 18,000 different law enforcement agencies from around the country and found that half said they had to rethink and change hiring policies ― such as no tattoos.

Some agencies just can’t compete

Some law enforcement agencies are struggling to stay fully staffed for financial reasons.

The 2021 PERF study quoted respondents anonymously. One person mentioned finances as a reason they can’t remain fully staffed.

“My department is getting younger as my experienced personnel retire/resign and are replaced with new officers. We are struggling to keep up with salaries for neighboring larger departments who are recruiting my experienced officers.”

Another respondent attributed negative attitudes toward policing as a reason for their hiring drought.

“We have seen an approximate 40% reduction in applicant packets this last fiscal year. In addition, we are seeing fewer ‘above average’ candidates. The current rhetoric and negativity surrounding law enforcement is having a negative impact on the number and quality of applicants we recruit.”

Yet another respondent said social media whittles the candidate pool.

“Social media checks have excluded many candidates from our process, because their thoughts and ideals do not align with the guiding principles of our department.

The national average salary for police officers in 2019 was roughly $60,000, according to Forbes . Florida’s average salary at that time was $60,720, which ranked 22nd nationally.

With wages at that level, can Florida realistically compete for officers? The average pay for a Chicago police officer is $68,000. In San Francisco it is $92,000. And a police officer in New York City would make $85,292 after five years of service.

The highest starting salaries in the state for both new police officers and new deputies are in Palm Beach County.

The Boca Raton Police Services Department has the highest starting pay out of all 299 police departments and sheriff’s offices in the state, with a minimum starting salary of $70,198 — almost $50,000 more than one city pays its new police officers. According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Lawtey Police Department in Central Florida’s Bradford County starts officers at $10 an hour, or $20,800 annually.

Out of all 67 sheriff’s offices, Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office comes in at the top with a minimum starting salary of $57,564.

Perhaps some agencies in higher-wages paying South Florida could draw some out-of-state officers, but smaller agencies in rural and less affluent counties and towns don’t stand a chance, said Levy County Sheriff Bobby McCallum.

McCallum leads the statewide Sheriff’s Association. He said every sheriff he has spoken with says there is a shortage of deputies. “I just don’t think there’s a lot of young folks that are drawn to the profession.”

McCallum applauds the governor’s attempt to bring more officers to Florida, but he knows agencies like his that can pay high-ranking officers only $36,000 a year aren’t likely to get the out-of-state officers and deputies.

”We’re physically restrained,” he said. “As sheriff, I understand the taxpayers that we have as well as the limitations that we have.”

Delray Beach Police Chief Javaro Sims applauds the governor’s gesture in trying to help fill state-sponsored law enforcement such as the Florida Highway Patrol and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement but he thinks local police departments would benefit more if given grants pay to pay for the police academy or offset academy expenses.

And then there is the potential baggage issues, Sims said.

“My issue with going out of state is a lot of times you don’t really know what baggage comes along with them, especially when information is not so readily available from state to state, so that could cause a lot of issues and problems that could be detrimental to the agency and the city as a whole,” Sims said.

The Lakeland Police Department recently went to New York City to recruit police officers and eventually hired a handful.

However, one of the new hires was among eight NYPD plainclothes officers accused of handcuffing and beating a man in January 2015. The city settled the lawsuit, but it’s not clear if disciplinary action was taken against the officers.

Will the slump ever end?

It’s unclear how long it will take police departments and sheriff’s offices to recover from the current staffing lull. One complication is a smaller candidate pool.

“There’s a smaller pool of candidates and that is because there are so many other fields of employment that are offering similar incentives and opportunities ... for the potential pool of candidates,” said Major Al Xiques of the Pembroke Pines police. “We’re competing not just with other law enforcement agencies throughout the region, state and country, but we are also competing with other fields of employment like nursing and the hospitality industry.”

Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, agrees young people aren’t interested in policing.

“It is not simply a matter of police salaries being too low, or other problems that can be addressed fairly easily,” Wexler wrote in a 2019 report called “The Workforce Crisis, and What Police Agencies Are Doing About It. “There seem to be fewer young people today who have any interest in policing.”

Is DeSantis late to the game?

While DeSantis’ offer of signing bonuses and higher salaries for law enforcement may lead to the presumption that he is simply satisfying his political base, many who work in or research the law enforcement profession don’t see it that way.

“We do see some departments that are taking advantage of some officer’s concerns about getting the vaccine so we’re seeing states without the requirement going after officers in states with that requirement,” said Fridell, the USF criminology professor. “I’m going to stop there. Whether you call that political or not, I don’t know.”

Long before DeSantis proposed the $5,000 signing bonus, a small Florida city was offering twice that for already certified officers. It hasn’t really helped.

On top of the $10,000 for certified officers, Pembroke Pines is willing to throw in another $5,000 for moving expenses. New recruits get a $5,000 bonus. And even though its starting salary is $59,779 for new recruits, it still has 25 vacancies and is down 10%. The city is supposed to provide 23 school resource officers to Broward schools, but they are short-staffed by seven vacancies, or 30% of what is required.

DeSantis’ proposed $5,000 signing bonus, which still must be approved by the Legislature, might not be enacted until July when the new fiscal budget starts. Could that be too little too late?

Spokane, Wash., for example, already is offering a $15,000 bonus for new hires, and they have billboards advertising that bonus in Seattle, Denver and Portland. Fayetteville, Ark., is offering $10,000 bonuses to certified officers. Tennessee is offering a $5,000 bonus to newly hired corrections officers and a $4,000 retention bonus to current corrections officers.

U.S. Rep. Val Demings, D-Orlando, spent 27 years with the Orlando Police Department. In 2001, she was named chief. She said recruiting officers has never been easy.

“While sometimes we don’t get it right, police executives are always looking for the brightest and the best. Men and women who have the courage and the heart to do the job. Men and women willing to risk their lives, every day. Men and women with the highest moral standards.

“Most of the time police executives get it right. The overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers are good, decent, hard-working people. Law enforcement officers take an oath to the constitution and to protect and serve their communities. That oath must be our guiding light, and officers must be laser-focused on that mission. Efforts to politicize that mission are irresponsible and dangerous. Law enforcement must always rise above politics and they need the support of their communities to help them stay out of the political traps offered by far too many elected officials, desperate for political power. We must always recruit police officers who follow the rules. It makes it much easier for them to enforce the rules.”

Eileen Kelley can be reached at 772-925-9193 or . Follow on Twitter @reporterkell.

Chris Perkins can be reached at . Follow on Twitter @chrisperk

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