Are Local Police Departments Really Struggling With a Staffing Issue Part 2

Another week, another fake news story from the Herald Citizen. The only remaining weekly newspaper in the area ran an embarrassingly one-side cover story two weeks ago asking how local police departments in Mooresville, Cornelius, Huntersville, and Davidson can compete with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (“CMPD”) when it comes to staffing. And last week the paper essentially ran a press release from the Mecklenburg Chapter of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association (“SSPBA”) about police-to-citizen ratios, but slapped a byline with Lee Sullivan’s name on it and called it a story. Mr. Sullivan was the writer of both recent “stories” in the Herald. Running a press release providing only a single viewpoint used to be frowned upon in the world of journalism, but that was back when real journalists still existed. [Note: I will no longer directly link to the Herald from my site when referencing articles. If you want to give them the clicks, you can visit their site directly.]

Oh, and did I mention the Mecklenburg Chapter of the SSPBA also ran a full-page ad in last week’s paper encouraging people to contact elected officials in Huntersville and support a pay raise for the Huntersville Police Department (“HPD”)? Full-page ads in the Herald aren’t cheap. I wonder if the dues paying members of the Mecklenburg Chapter of the SSPBA who don’t work in Huntersville support the decision to use their dues to support raises just for HPD officers?

They say perception is reality and the perception now is that if the Herald provides favorable coverage of an issue/individual/organization that coverage will be rewarded with advertising revenues. The Herald is no longer in the business of reporting news, it has now moved into the business of shaping opinion by reporting only carefully selected facts in their “stories.” At least the former Citizen made an effort, albeit weak, to separate their news and opinion sections with their “Talkers” column. The Herald needs to address this publicly if they want to maintain any credibility as a news organization. Or, they could decide to embrace their new role as the official propaganda arm of local government and just rename the paper the Herald Comrade.

Notably, the SSPBA reported spending $36,548.48 during the 2017 municipal elections in NC according to their most recent campaign finance report at the State Board of Elections. This includes approx. $8,000 to local candidates in Huntersville and Cornelius. Five out of six of your current Huntersville town board members received $1,000 contributions from the SSPBA: Bales, Boone, Gibbons, Hines, and Walsh; Phillips is the only commissioner not to receive a contribution. Joe Sailers also received $1,000. Will these $1,000 contributions have any effect on the decision by the town board to award raises to HPD officers this year?

Since the most recent Herald story focused on police-to-citizen ratios instead of just comparing starting base pay figures, a few thoughts about this ratio issue.

Mr. Sullivan describes “an officer-to-resident ratio recommended by the FBI” of 2.23 to 2.51 sworn officers per 1,000 residents in his story. Mr. Sullivan does not, however, provide any citation or source for this “recommended” ratio. After researching this supposed FBI staff level recommendation, I can only assume the 2.23 to 2.51 ratio comes from a 2016 Bureau of Justice Statistics report summarizing law enforcement employment data. The second page of the report contains a table showing the national estimate of sworn officers per 1,000 U.S. residents from the years 1992-2012 ranging from 2.23 in 1992 to 2.51 in 2008. Interestingly, a footnote to this table states, “Counts provided from the UCR police employee data are based on a convenience sample of agencies that voluntarily reported to the FBI and do not represent a national sample [emphasis added].” Nowhere in this report does it state this range is to be used as a recommendation for staffing levels. The report also states on page 3, “In each year from 1992 through 2012, more than two-thirds of the agencies that reported employment data served jurisdictions with a population of less than 10,000.” Not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison with the current estimated population of Huntersville being over 60,000.

I welcome a response from the Herald or Mr. Sullivan with the source of the reported FBI recommended staffing ratio.

The most recent police employee data I could find at the FBI’s website from their 2016 Crime in the United States report (the police employee data for 2017 hasn’t been released yet) also provided some helpful information. According to the report, the nationwide average of sworn officers was 2.4 per 1,000 residents. This 2.4 figure does fit within the range reported by Mr. Sullivan, however, the “user’s note” included with the report seemed to contradict the notion that this was any type of recommendation. The “user’s note” states in part, “Because of law enforcement’s varied service requirements and functions, as well as the distinct demographic traits and characteristics of each jurisdiction, readers should use caution when drawing comparisons between agencies’ staff levels based on police employment data from the UCR Program. In addition, the data presented here reflect existing staff levels and should not be interpreted as preferred officer strengths recommended by the FBI [emphasis added].”

There are many recognized staffing models for local police departments and the population or per-capita based staffing model has it detractors. For example, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (“IACP”) published an article on this issue a few years ago that explained their position against using police to population ratios as a basis for agency staffing decisions. “Ratios, such as officers-per-thousand population, are totally inappropriate as a basis for staffing decisions. Accordingly, they have no place in the IACP methodology. Defining patrol staffing allocation and deployment requirements is a complex endeavor which requires consideration of an extensive series of factors and a sizable body of reliable, current data.”

You can also read two other reports on this issue here and here from the International City/County Management Association that are critical of solely using population or per-capita based staffing models as a basis for staffing decisions. Even Cornelius Chief Bence Hoyle recognizes that population ratios aren’t the ideal way to make staffing decisions. The Herald reported that Hoyle said he knows about the FBI recommendations and other statistics concerning police staffing, but he believes the type of community, and the type of calls for service [emphasis added] are factors that merit more consideration.

The town shouldn’t incentivize higher crime rates by punishing HPD for their good work in helping to keep crime at historically low levels by reducing staff or cutting pay. But, maybe before deciding whether to award pay raises to HPD officers, the town board needs to determine what problem they’re actually trying to solve with a pay raise? As I discussed in my last article, the argument for raises based on parity with CMPD’s starting salary is based on unfounded assumptions. And as I’ve just outlined above, clearly the argument for raises based on an officer-to-resident ratio is also not convincing. Maybe the Herald will have yet another “story” out this week with a new problem being faced by HPD and other local departments that will require further analysis.

Here’s a novel idea – why don’t we actually ask our officers what they think about these issues and what problems at HPD may need to be addressed instead of simply relying on information in ads and social media posts by an interested party like the SSPBA? Surely the town could come up with an anonymous survey option to address officer concerns about retribution?

Huntersville simply cannot win an arms race with Charlotte when it comes to officer pay. The FY17 operating budget in Charlotte was $634.9 million! The approved FY17/18 operating budget in Huntersville was $35.5 million. Do we really think CMPD and the Charlotte city council will sit idly by while their 157 open positions remain unfilled if HPD is able to raise it’s starting base pay to match CMPD’s?  It’s unfortunate the SSPBA and HPD seem to be taking advantage of the staffing issues Huntersville is currently facing due to the recent resignation of the town manager to push through a significant raise for employees in one department of the town. Again, let’s hope the Huntersville town board takes the time to analyze the complex issue of appropriately staffing the police department before simply throwing more money at the problem in the next budget.