Documents show keeping police officers in Columbus a tough task

mowen@ledger-enquirer.com; tstevens@ledger-enquirer.comApril 5, 2014 

Mike Haskey/mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.comAn officer with the Columbus Police Department holds a group of plastic zip ties to use as handcuffs in the event of arrests at the 2009 SOA Watch protest. Documents show more Columbus police officers are leaving the force because of pay and job stresses.

MIKE HASKEY

Former Columbus police officer Kevin Williford patrolled south Columbus for more than three years before leaving the department in February.

He now works for TMC Trucking, where he said he makes more money and is able to spend extra time with his family.

Williford says patrol partners and community members have begged him to return. But he said while working at the police department, he found himself too often choosing between paying the bills and filling the refrigerator.

"Almost every officer that works there, we had two to three jobs," said Williford, who worked security detail at his apartment complex, TSYS and Piggly Wiggly.

Sometimes he said he made more money working part time than as an officer.

"The pay hasn't been increased to compensate for living costs," Williford said. "I'd look at my wife and feel bad because we work our butt off but ain't got groceries in the house."

Williford is one of a growing number of officers who have decided to leave the Columbus Police Department, records show.

At least four people Williford went through Police Academy with said they have also left to join different departments because of stress and monetary concerns. The pressures contributing to the turnover makes Williford concerned for younger officers.

"They've washed their hands of Columbus," he said. "A lot of the young officers that are coming in, they don't have the experience. And that's what's going to hurt us, because a lot of the older officers with the experience are leaving."

Beefing up recruitment

While looking at employee retention rates, Sgt. David Elmer and Maj. Wanna Barker-Wright noticed a worrying pattern beginning in 2010.

"The number (of officers) that was staying was getting smaller and smaller, but the number that were leaving just kept growing," Elmer said.

Columbus Police Department documents show the department had 16 open positions in 2010. In 2013, they had 39.

"With those vacancies, we had to beef up our recruitment," said Barker-Wright of Administrative Services.

That meant a new advertising campaign. The department partnered with Image By Design, a local ad and graphic design company, to place billboards across the city. The result: a 70 percent increase in applications over 2013.

"We changed our slogan 'Join the Force for Good,' where the other one was 'Meet the Challenge,'" Barker-Wright said. "And we've seen a steady increase of applicants coming in since we've changed the billboards."

Seventy-seven applications have been filed this quarter, compared to 55 in 2013, according to documents. The 11 men hired so far (no women have been hired this quarter) will join two other recent recruits at the Police Academy on Monday.

"Just in April alone we had 200 people walk in our doors, either to submit an application or to ask questions," Elmer said.

If hiring practices stay consistent with those between 2010 and 2013, an average 42 officers will be hired this year; 48 will leave. About 65 percent of those leaving resign, but that average also includes retirees, the deceased and those who are terminated.

And the deficit adds up.

In 2011, the department lost two employees more than it hired. In 2013, 14 more.

Part of the high turnover can be pinned to wavering recruits. A new hire spends the first year in training before graduating to the streets. Then recruitment officers finally get insight into how many might stay.

"There are officers that come in, do all their training. They go out with their field training officer for a day, ride around and say, 'This isn't for me,'" Elmer said. "Law enforcement isn't for everybody, and they make that decision quick."

But that year's training still adds up.

Barker-Wright said the department estimates $50,000 is spent to train one recruit. In 2013, nine out of 40 resigning officers, or 23 percent, worked less than a year. Forty percent stayed less than two years. Many who leave declare their intention to use local law enforcement as a state and federal career stepping stone upfront, Elmer said.

An officer who lasts two years stands a strong chance of making it five, Barker-Wright said. Those who pass the five-year marker are more likely to be long-term employees.

Retention problems

Police Chief Ricky Boren said he is confident the department can attract good recruits with the current starting salary and benefits.

Columbus' starting salaries are competitive with regional police departments, but because of a lack of cost-of-living raises in recent years some officers look elsewhere, he said.

City employees received a 2 percent raise in 2006, but no raise in 2007, 2008 or 2009, which in effect is a .5 percent raise per year for that period, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said.

In 2010, 2011 and 2012, employees have received .5 percent raises (in addition to 4 percent given to offset new employee pension contributions).

But Boren said maintaining a full force will continue to be a challenge as long as salary increases do not keep up with increases in health care costs and other costs of living.

"Maintenance on officers' salaries is the same as buying a new car. You've got to maintain that car and keep it serviced. If not, it's going to put you down," Boren said. "That's the same thing I'm talking about when I talk about officers and retention. You have to maintain those salaries in order to maintain the department."

He said salary isn't a problem coming in the door, but then retention of those officers when there is no salary maintenance, it becomes a problem.

"When they're seeing that they've been here three, four or five years and they're making the same of money as the people who are just coming in the door today are making," he said, "I think it becomes a perceived problem for them and they start looking at other places that do maintain salaries better than what we do in Columbus."

Tomlinson said she and Boren have brainstormed creative ways to retain officers other than giving substantial cost-of-living raises, for which there simply isn't the money in the city budget. They are considering two such ideas. One would be to create a new pay grade for officers on the street, so that when they get a couple of years of experience, they would have an incentive to stay. Another would be to offer longevity bonuses to officers who remain beyond three or five years.

Those costs could be paid from savings realized by not paying to train so many officers to replace those leaving, Tomlinson said.

"With the savings there, we could give a one-stripe bump and a longevity bump at three years and another bump at five years," Tomlinson said.

Joining the force

The hiring process to join the Columbus Police Department is rigorous, said Boren, so as to weed out those who have no business wearing a badge and carrying a gun. First, applicants must be at least 21 years old and a U.S. citizen with no felony convictions or misdemeanors involving issues of "moral turpitude." Applicants must also pass a physical agility test and a state examination, undergo a background check, polygraph test, psychological examination and interviews.

Only about 8 percent of applicants end up as sworn officers, which is about average for Georgia police departments, Boren said.

Once the applicants are hired, they begin drawing their salary immediately, but they still face 18 months or so of training and probationary supervision before becoming "solo" officers.

Depending on when classes are taught at the Police Academy, the new recruits will either go there immediately or undergo in-house training at the Public Safety Building until classes begin, which could be a month or two, Boren said. The academy is a 10-week, 400-hour course of study during which recruits are tested weekly, midway through and with a final exam covering all 10 weeks of study.

If they survive the academy, they will become sworn, state-certified peace officers, but their training is far from over, Boren said. They will undergo six more weeks of in-house training under each of the department's bureaus before finally hitting the streets with a field training officer. Depending on performance, the recruit will stay with that officer for six to 11 weeks. Finally, after the field training officer and other supervisors in the training division check off on the officer, he or she is ready to go solo on patrol.

This article has been edited to clarify hiring statistics.

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