LUMBERTON — Local law enforcement agencies are facing personnel shortages that add to the challenges of serving and protecting their communities.
Robeson County Sheriff Burnis Wilkins told The Robesonian there are 24 vacancies within the Robeson County Detention Center and approximately six vacancies for sheriff’s deputy. Three of the vacancies include positions vacated by detention center officers who were fired after being recently charged in connection with an identity theft case. He also said several employees have retired and others plan to retire in the next month.
“Although law enforcement is truly a noble profession, it seems to be undesirable at the moment,” Wilkins said. “With a shortage of staff at the detention center, there is a threat of injury.”
The sheriff said a cell block can hold eight to 16 inmates, but immediate staffing may not be enough to “thwart criminal activity in a cell until emergency deputies arrive from the patrol division”.
“It’s dangerous for both staff and the prison population,” he said. “We allow overtime to fill the void, but even that is not enough.”
Rowland Police Chief Hubert Graham said the department has three officers out of a capacity of seven officers. There are approximately 14 auxiliary officers who assist the department for part-time pay.
“It’s competitive,” he said of recruiting agents.
“Everyone has a shortage,” Graham added.
A Police Executive Research Forum survey conducted in June 2021 which garnered 194 responses showed “an overall increase of 18% in the quit rate in 2020-2021, compared to 2019-2020”.
The survey also revealed “a 45% increase in the retirement rate” in responding departments.
The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that “overall police and detective employment” will increase by 7% from 2020 to 2030.
“About 67,100 police and detective openings are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of these openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who change occupations or leave the labor market, for example to retire,” according to the USBLS.
“While the desire for public safety may drive a need for more officers, demand for employment is expected to vary by location, largely driven by local and state budgets. Even when crime rates drop , the demand for policing to maintain public safety is expected to continue,” the USBLS states.
Several news reports this year have documented police shortages. The areas mentioned in the reports range from Winston-Salem and High Point to Asheville, Atlanta and Seattle.
“We are losing decades of experience to those retiring and trying to fill those positions is difficult. Trying to recruit young people into this profession is difficult because many don’t seem to care about long-term benefits but are looking for higher salaries, flexible hours and signing bonuses,” Wilkins said.
According to Cheryl Hemric, RCC Public Information Officer, 53 students were enrolled in BLET courses in 2019-20 and 42 in 2020-21. There were 67 students enrolled in 2021-2022.
Completing training under the program is also an arduous process, said Rudy Locklear, director of the RCC’s Basic Law Enforcement Training Academy and Criminal Justice Technology Program.
“BLET Academy is competitive and the training is rigorous. Candidates undergo written exams, agility and endurance exercises. For those who persevere, the good news is that our program has a 100% employment rate and our graduates have found employment in North Carolina law enforcement,” Locklear said in a statement.
However, even during challenges such as police personnel shortages, education must continue to produce the officers needed for the workforce using the same standard, he said.
“When recruiting Basic Law Enforcement Training Academy cadets, it is critical that we maintain the same high bar for basic recruiting standards that we always have. The goal is to s ensure that we graduate cadets who demonstrate good work ethics, the ability to make good decisions and good judgments, and who are committed to protecting and serving their community,” Locklear said.
The Red Springs Police Department is hiring officers on a three-year contract, Chief Brent Adkins said.
If the officers leave before the three-year contract expires, they must reimburse a percentage of the money the city spent on items like uniforms, he said.
Adkins said the department had seen young officers join the experiment before moving on to other jobs elsewhere.
Graham told The Robesonian he was working to get more equipment for the small department to help retain officers. The department struggled to do this about two years ago due to salary constraints.
“I was losing people left and right because of salary,” he said.
Rowland currently offers a competitive salary with other county law enforcement agencies.
Fairmont police officers receive the lowest starting salary in the county. However, city commissioners voted in favor of a pay study that calls for increases for city employees in the new budget cycle for the 2022-23 fiscal year. A formal vote on the matter is due to take place in June.
Here is a list of base salaries for some local and state law enforcement agencies, from highest to lowest:
• North Carolina State Highway Patrol: $48,569
• University of North Carolina at Pembroke Campus Police – $43,500
• North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation Agent – $43,406 (no prior experience)
• Robeson County Sheriff’s Office – $39,600
• Pembroke Police Department – $38,279
• St. Pauls Police Department – $37,461
• Rowland Police Department – $36,500
• Lumberton Police Department – $36,204.11 (2.5% associate degree and 5% bachelor’s degree)
• Red Springs Police Department – $35,300
• Maxton Police Department – $35,188
• Robeson County Detention Center Officer – $34,205
• North Carolina Department of Corrections Officer $33,130 (0-11 months experience)
• Fairmont Police Department – $30,900
Red Springs Police Chief Brent Adkins said he plans to seek raises for his officers.
Sheriff Wilkins said the Sheriff’s Office entry salary for deputies will increase July 1 to more than $40,000. He also said that he demanded salary increases for the detention center officers.
St. Pauls Police Chief Mike Owens has 13 officers on a police force of 15 officers.
“We cannot afford to pay anyone to go to school,” he said.
Owens said some people are currently involved in the application process for the department.
The department is working to recruit students into basic law enforcement training by sending an officer to speak to them during class, he said.
In 2020, local law enforcement cited staffing issues related to anticop sentiment. The sheriff’s office lost a deputy and a detective during this time due to negative perceptions surrounding the law enforcement profession, Wilkins said at the time.
Owens told The Robesonian the sentiment persists.
“You have to really love this job to stay in it,” Graham said.
Graham told The Robesonian when he joined the profession decades ago, the perception of police officers was different.
But, helping others and seeing the results of that help is worth it, he said.
North Carolina Prisons
Vacancies are not located only in police departments, they also exist in the state prison system.
As of Monday, there were 1,882 vacancies for corrections officers in the prison system, which has “9,263 authorized budget positions” for corrections officers, said John Bull, prisons communications officer at the Department of Public Safety. North Carolina.
“Vacancies are a problem long before the pandemic and have been a problem in correctional systems across the country,” Bull said.
The state prison system has held hiring events and seen more than 90 employees return to work for the system as correctional officers since the start of 2022, he said.
“Since implementing our Tiered Compensation Plan for Corrections Officers in January 2022, with funding from the budget passed in November, we have seen a steady increase in applications for Correctional Officers in the three months from 1 quarter of 2022,” said Bull.
NC Prisons also launched a campaign called “All In” to fill vacancies and retain employees.
“Whatever the obstacles to continuing to work in the prison system – whether it’s training, welfare, childcare, transport, etc. – we want to find solutions that will allow our trained professionals to continue working for us,” added Bull.
Contact Jessica Horne at 910-416-5165 or by email at [email protected]