Local law enforcement agencies tackle staffing shortages addressed by statewide bonus program

Alachua County Sheriff Deputy Lexi Burks job. The 23-year-old works a minimum of 84 hours a pay period but sometimes works up to 120 hours — a result of overtime shifts in the midst of the law enforcement shortage. (Courtesy of Lexi Burks)

Lexi Burks didn’t join law enforcement for the money. In fact, she grew up telling herself she’d never become a cop, despite her interest in criminal justice.

After more exposure to the job of deputies, however, the High Springs native said she knew it was something she had to do, a duty to serve the community she grew up in. She’d already begun her academy training when she learned she’d be receiving a $5,000 bonus upon her certification, through the Florida Law Enforcement Recruitment Bonus Program.

The program administers a one-time payment of $5,000 to law enforcement officers newly employed in Florida. As a recipient, Burks, 23, joins 19 other deputies at the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office and more than 3,350 law enforcement officers across the state to receive the bonus.

As part of a 2022 bill that also established law enforcement scholarships, family benefits and increased salaries as hiring incentives, the bonus reflects a legislative push for law enforcement recruitment and retention. Behind the effort lies a nationwide shortage of law enforcement officers.

“It’s going to make our jobs and lives easier because it’s attracting people to the field,” Burks said. “And that’s exactly what we need.”

As law enforcement agencies across North Central Florida share in their experience of the staffing shortage, currently employed officers must fill in the gaps with overtime hours. Burks, who is also pursuing a master’s degree online, manages up to 20 hours a week of overtime as a deputy sheriff or 120 total hours in one pay period.

The extent of the work leaves her mentally drained and this lowered morale bleeds into life at home, she said.

To her, the bonus came as a show of support.

“It’s not about the free money,” she explained. “It’s about the implications of the money.”

Gainesville Police Department Sgt. Tristan Grunder, 38, agrees, though his 15-year tenure as an officer made him ineligible for the bonus.

Grunder, former president of the Gainesville chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, related law enforcement employment to three major factors: support from leadership and commission, support from citizens and money.

A deficiency in one area can cause officers to feel unappreciated and make it difficult to stay in the job.

“Without the support, people don’t care about the money,” he said.

The decline in patrol officers first became apparent to him in 2016. Once a 20-person fleet, the GPD officers on the midnight shift dwindled through the next several years.

Now, GPD night patrols often reach just half of that number, Grunder said.

From 2016 to 2022, the number of GPD law enforcement officers dropped from 291 to 247, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement data.

“We’re doing the best with what we’ve got, but we’re continuously asked to do more with less,” Grunder said.

Grunder attributed the shortage to the current national climate with higher levels of scrutiny toward law enforcement making retainment a challenge. He said he appreciates the involvement of state leadership whose attention to the issue reverberates at city and county levels.

“Honestly, we just want good, qualified people to come work next to us. If they gave them all 20 grand to come, I’d be happy with that,” he said.

As of February 2022, GPD offers its own signing bonus of $8,000 to $11,000 for certified and non-certified officers, depending on their level of experience.

Similarly, as of October, the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office offers a supplemental signing bonus of $5,000. Its award is available not just to certified law enforcement officers but detention officers, telecommunicators and records personnel, who don’t qualify for the state-issued bonus.

According to Art Forgey, the public information officer for the sheriff’s office, funding for the bonus comes from lapse salary dollars. The agency is down 26% of employees as of Nov. 7.

The county’s extra monetary incentive falls in line with expanded recruitment efforts throughout the agency, including a newly established recruitment team and extended hours for polygraph testing, done to streamline the hiring process. Newly elected Alachua County Sheriff Emery Gainey has also contacted former employees to secure rehires.

“Anything we can do, whether it be at the county level or at the state level, is going to help us try to fill some of those vacancies,” Forgey said.

Since Gainey took office on Oct. 2, the agency has made about 30 hires, Forgey said.

Burks has taken note of the uptick.

Emails announcing a new cadet hire seem to arrive every other week with the most recent round of interviews featuring 10 applicants — a huge feat for the sheriff’s office, she said.

The growing number of hires comes as a morale booster.

“It’s nice to know that help is on the way,” Burks said.

Still, that help hasn’t reached every county.

Neither the sheriff’s office in Levy County nor Columbia County have hired an officer with the state-level recruitment bonus.

New officers are more likely to join larger agencies that can afford to offer additional signing bonuses and a higher starting pay, explained Lt. Scott Tummond, the public information officer at the Levy County Sheriff’s Office.

According to Tummond, Levy County Sheriff’s Office is financially constrained by the county’s limited tax base, precluding it from expanding on the $5,000 state incentive. During the 2023 fiscal year, the agency’s budget stood at $20,396,025 — less than a fifth of Alachua County Sheriff’s $109.1 million budget.

Sgt. Steven Khachigan, the public information officer at Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, similarly cited fiscal constraints as a primary challenge in county recruitment efforts.

Though Columbia County bumped its starting pay for deputies from $43,000 to $45,000 this year thanks to state funding, the rate still isn’t competitive enough, Khachigan said.

“If you have a state agency that’s paying $10,000 more [per year] than we are, that definitely plays a role in not only recruitment but retention,” he said.

Additional salary funding for the sheriff’s office would allow the county to match the market rate, benefiting current and future hires, he said.

“Most of the people in this profession know they’re not going to get rich doing this, and that’s not why they do it,” Khachigan said. “But they should be able to afford making a living.”

About Luena Rodriguez-Feo Vileira

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

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