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.

Eric

Are Local Police Departments Really Struggling With a Staffing Issue?

It has been a few weeks since I’ve been motivated to write about much, but budget season in Huntersville is just around the corner so I’m sure I’ll have plenty to write about soon enough. Thankfully the local paper is a never-ending source of motivation whenever I’m in a slump. Serious question time – now that the Herald bought the Citizen and we only have one local weekly paper, does that mean the Herald Citizen is now the “only experienced, professional, legitimate news outlet in the Lake Norman region?”

The cover story of the Herald Citizen last week alerted readers to the alleged struggle all four local police departments (Mooresville, Huntersville, Cornelius, and Davidson) are currently facing over staffing issues. The story featured quotes from the chiefs of all four departments expressing similar concerns over staffing. But don’t worry, according to the author this feature story was totally not a coordinated media blitz by local police departments since he lets us know that these concerns were expressed in the same way in separate conversations without knowing what the others said.

Let’s start by admiring the lengthy but brilliant analogy (the reader knows it’s brilliant because the author even quotes Chief Hoyle agreeing with the analogy) used by the author comparing the alleged hiring struggles of local police departments to a small-market baseball team losing a talented prospect to the loathsome Yankees of New York. In this analogy, the four local police departments are your AAA ball club and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (“CMPD”) is the Yankees, get it? Except maybe the analogy isn’t quite as good as Chief Hoyle says it is because small-market teams expect to lose their best prospects to the big league and even the loathsome Yankees have to compete with other “large-market” teams to retain their best players. In addition, even the loathsome Yankees and their vast resources can’t pay a high enough salary to prevent players from getting injured or retiring. And maybe the four local police departments just can’t offer the same opportunities that CMPD can no matter their starting base salary. What if an officer’s career goal is to be the best murder police in the world (yes, I learned everything I know about police work from watching The Wire)? Fortunately our local departments won’t be able to help that officer achieve that goal, while CMPD offers far too many opportunities for an officer that wants to be good murder police.

Maybe the 140 or so words used on this brilliant analogy could have been better used asking some specific questions about the staffing issues facing the local departments instead of just running a story full of unfounded assumptions.

Here are a few suggested questions for the local police departments that the author can ask in a follow-up piece, and for Huntersville in particular since Chief Spruill states that his department is the most vulnerable.

  • How many officers did you lose last year to CMPD? How many officers did you lose the past 5 years to CMPD for comparison?
  • How many officers, if any, have you lost to CMPD since they announced their lateral hiring push back in November?
  • How many officers did you lose last year to retirement?
  • How many officers did you lose last year to relocation, being hired by departments other than CMPD (including private security or police), injury, leaving policing for another profession, being hired by the Yankees, or any other reason?
  • If each respective town board approves a budget that includes salary increases for officers to match the starting base pay of CMPD, will this solve your staffing issues?
  • How many current officers in your department were lateral hires from other departments? Should your department be concerned about poaching officers from other towns that don’t have the budget/resources to pay their officers the same starting base pay you pay your officers?
  • None of the local departments list more than 3 current openings, while CMPD lists 157. Chief Dunn is quoted as saying that staffing issues in Davidson might be putting officers at risk because the number of officers on the street is below what it needs to be. Does this mean CMPD officers could be at risk as well due to their staffing issues and, if so, do the local departments have any obligation not to hinder attempts by CMPD to remedy their own staffing issues?
  • Is CMPD’s staffing issue resulting in higher crime in neighboring towns like Huntersville? If so, what is the best way to remedy this problem?
  • Is it possible any of the local departments are currently overstaffed and could afford to lose a few officers to CMPD?

Complex issues require serious analysis to reach solutions. Let’s hope each town board takes the time to analyze the complex issue of appropriately staffing their respective police departments before simply throwing more money at the problem in the next budget.

Eric