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Small-Town Police Departments Having Trouble Finding, Keeping Officers

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Updated, April 7, 2017 at 10:40 a.m.

When you dial 911, police officers are on their way to you. But you may not think about what it takes to get a police officer on the road.

“It takes five officers to have one on duty,” said Frederick Shenkman, professor emeritus in criminology at the University of Florida.

Shenkman said this isn’t always an easy task for small town police departments, which often have trouble finding and retaining officers.

According to Shenkman, police forces usually include the chief, the captain and the deputy chief.

“So you might not even have two officers available at any one time,” he said.

The town of Williston’s 12-man police department had three empty officer positions in late January.

“We had officers that were in harm’s way with no backup,” said Charles Goodman, president of the Williston City Council.

At $30,000, Williston was second-to-last on a list of officers starting pay for agencies in the area, and Goodman said officers were starting to go elsewhere.

LOCAL DEPARTMENTS’ STARTING SALARIES  
Gainesville Police Department $41,932
Ocala Police Department  $40,000
Alachua County Sheriff’s Department  $38,110
Marion County Sheriff’s Department $35,000
Cedar Key Police Department $34,500
Florida Highway Patrol  $33,977
Alachua Police Department $33,425
Belleview Police Department $33,000
High Springs Police Department $32,614
Levy County Sheriff’s Department $32,000
Dunnellon Police Department $31,117
Gilchrist County Sheriff’s Department $30,600
Cross City Police Department $30,500
Williston Police Department $30,000
Chiefland Police Department $29,514

* This chart, updated as of February 8th, was used by Williston City Council to decide on the raise. Some departments, such as Alachua, have since received raises.

“We lost them to the Levy County Sheriff’s Department, we lost them to the City of Gainesville — we weren’t matching a pay that could keep our officers there,” he said. “They have to live, too.”

Williston Police Department Deputy Chief Claiborne Connolly said the other agencies near Williston recruit from the same pool of potential officers.

“At $40,000 for a new hire at Gainesville? We can’t afford that,” Connolly said.

Williston raised officer pay by $2,000 across the board on Feb. 1, and the department had already filled two of the empty officer positions within a few weeks.

But it isn’t just salary that makes recruiting difficult at small departments. Lack of promotional opportunities is also an issue.

In a 12-man department like Williston, Shenkman said it’d likely have eight officers, two sergeants, a lieutenant and the chief. With very few leadership positions, there’s almost no chance to move up.

Shenkman said he saw this firsthand when he helped write the lieutenant’s exam for the University of Florida Police department when they had 12 sergeants waiting to move up.

“No one had been promoted in the last 10 years. So you have all these people waiting to be promoted, and there was one position,” Shenkman said.

Instead of promotions, officers at small departments often are forced to do more than one job.

“We already wear multiple hats because we are an 11-man or 12-man police department,” Connolly said. “So we have to work shifts; we have to work investigations; we have to do a lot of things typically other departments don’t.

Lack of promotion isn’t an issue at larger agencies like the Gainesville Police Department, which has more than 300 officers.

“There’s plenty of room for people to move up, move into different areas … different specialty units that people can join,” GPD spokesman Ben Tobias said. “Here at Gainesville, you don’t just have patrol officers.”

When someone leaves the police academy, departments like Gainesville’s, where new officers make $41,932 per year and the department has a recruiting team, it often has the advantage in recruiting new officers.

It also credits its lack of recruiting issues to Gainesville Police officers’ ability to move around in the department, like being a part of a canine unit, detective division or traffic safety unit.

Shenkman said smaller towns don’t resort to larger agencies like county sheriff’s departments as a solution to not being able to afford larger departments because locals want officers that they’re familiar with protecting them.

“People don’t want strangers in their community, being able to be in charge if they don’t understand the culture of that town,” Shenkman said.

Community policing is the primary reason these local departments remain so important.

“We do not want to get into the situation where we have a community at odds with our police department.” Goodman said. “And the only way you can do that is to have quality officers and to have them active within the community.”

About Austin Landis

Austin is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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