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Low Pay, Poor Morale And A Contract Dispute Leave GPD With Staffing Shortages

The Gainesville Police Department is struggling to hold onto its officers.

GPD only has 279 officers out of a possible 307 budgeted, Police Chief Tony Jones said at a town hall meeting in March. Jones also said then that the agency is “hurting for police officers.”

It is not a new development. In the past five years, 110 officers have left GPD. Low pay, poor morale, a contract impasse and a lack of support from city officials has led to the departures, said Matt Goeckel, spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police Gator Lodge 67.

Of these 110, one officer left and moved far across the country to earn more than double his salary; another went to a different department in the state, where he makes more money despite accepting a demotion, and a third left his extended family behind for Texas due to morale issues.

“Unfortunately, right now it feels like we are leaking like a sieve,” Goeckel said.

While one department leader disputes it, the union official argues that the shortage is making it so patrol response times to both 911 and non-emergency calls are increasing. Both sides agree that detectives and those in administrative  positions are taking on patrol shifts.

Antonio Romero loved his time at GPD.​ He began there as a patrol officer in 2008, and was working 64 hour weeks – including 24 as a firefighter – when he married his wife in 2014. That’s when the cost of living in Gainesville became a struggle.

“I could not even afford the city health plan once I got married,” he said. “It was so expensive that I actually had to go to an outside vendor.”

The financial issues led the Romeros to move that same year to Bellevue, Washington, where he is now a police officer earning 133 percent more than in Gainesville.

“My highest gross at GPD was around $45,000,” he said. “At Bellevue, I’m making $105,000 gross income.”

Ernell Cook joined GPD in 2011 after working for three years at a juvenile center in Tallahassee. He and his wife envisioned staying in Gainesville long term; their extended families live in the area. But Cook left GPD in June to accept a job with the federal government in Texas. He asked that his position and the duties associated with his work not be disclosed publicly.

“A lot of people are using GPD as a stepping stone, because it doesn’t seem beneficial to stay there, and build a long-term career there, with where the pay, benefits and staffing numbers are,” he said. “It hurts me to say that, because Gainesville is home. I would have loved to stay there.”

The shortage meant Cook also struggled to get days off from work. That proved to be a problem with him having two young children, he said.

Another morale factor: GPD officers have been working without a contract since September. The city and the local FOP cannot agree on wages, or how to implement an 18-year step plan which would enable officers to know their earning potential long term, as well as gain a gradual pay increase as their service lengthens, Goeckel said.

The FOP proposes that first-year officers earn $42,987.57 a year and 18-year officers make $63,787.57. According to FOP documents, the city is offering around $41,000 for first-year officers and around $61,000 after 18 years.

The union also wants better shift differentials and longevity pay for its members.

“[Our members] do not feel like the people who negotiate with us on behalf of the city are supportive of us, and what we are trying to accomplish,” Goeckel said.

Gainesville spokesman Bob Woods said the city is making an honest effort to reach an agreement with the union. Beyond that, city officials declined to comment on ongoing labor negotiations.

Goeckel said comparable police departments pay their officers more than GPD. The Tallahassee Police Department, which also oversees a college town, has its officers on a step plan. Its first-year officers earn $45,192 a year, according to the department’s website.

Jeremiah Kelly, a former GPD sergeant, left the department in December to start over at a different agency in Florida. As a first-year officer at the new agency, which he asked not be identified publicly, Kelly earns more than what he made with a higher rank at GPD.

“I was a sergeant with a master’s degree, and leaving there with an extensive resume, and I got a pay raise of $3,000 to start all over and be a rookie again in another boot camp,” he said.

Kelly said that when he first started at GPD in 2006, he never envisioned himself leaving.

“There were great supervisors and great camaraderie,” he said. “I loved my job.”

But in his last three years at GPD, the environment changed, especially on the leadership level, Kelly said. “Instead of backing the officers and supporting the officers like good leaders should do, they were constantly yelling and finding things wrong,” he said.

Kelly also said that department leaders value the wrong things in their officers.

“It used to be about achievements there and being a good cop and your experience,” he said. “Now it is about how many community events you do.”

GPD Capt. Jorge Campos said that determining the cause of morale issues is difficult to pinpoint. He also said Chief Jones and other department leaders value both tactical skills and community engagement – and that the officer shortage may also have to do with Gainesville’s struggle to attract people to come work in the city, especially those just starting their careers.

“How do you retain people who are past college age and have not yet had kids or settled down?” he asked. “What attractions do you have here in Gainesville to keep these people here.”

GPD has changed two rules for applicants in an effort to remedy the shortage, Campos said.

Before March, those who were found guilty of marijuana possession or usage in the three years prior to their application date were barred from applying. The restriction is now down to one year. Also, those without 60 college credits can apply if they have at least five years of serving the public at large, including working in a job that requires frequent customer service.

An officer shortage is not particularly unique to Gainesville, said Campos, who noted that departments across the state are also experiencing difficulty with hiring officers.

“There has been a lot of public outcry against police,” the captain said. “There are a lot of folks who do not want to get into the profession.”

Goeckel agreed. “Everybody knows it’s not the best time to be a cop,” he said.

According to 2016 Census data, Gainesville’s population is 131,591. Port. St Lucie (pop. 185,132) has lost 45 officers in the past five years, but its department is only three below its budget of 236. Miami Beach (pop. 91,917) has lost 67 officers in the last five years, leaving its department with 313. Sarasota (pop. 56,610) has 161 officers, an eight-person shortage and a loss of 47 since 2013. In Clearwater (pop. 114,361), 94 officers have left in the past five years, leaving its department with 294.

The shortage has also caused police response times go up, Goeckel said. Sometimes it takes longer for patrol officers to get to where they’re dispatched, he said.

According to the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, which keeps track of response times for all police agencies in its jurisdiction, from Jan. 1, 2015, to Dec. 31, 2016, in Gainesville the average response time for calls involving injuries or the threat of serious injury was 3 minutes, 17 seconds. During the last 12 months, that average response time was 3 minutes, 30 seconds.

Response times across the board, from highest priority to lowest, have also increased.

Campos acknowledged the increases, but said the changes are not significant and could be caused by a variety of reasons, including additional police calls related to Hurricane Irma.

Despite all of the resulting factors, officers are working to do their best work, Goeckel said.

“They’re busting their butts out there trying to ensure that the community doesn’t face the effects of this shortage,” he said.

Camille is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.