Law enforcement agencies working with smaller staffs

·5 min read

Jun. 10—When Owensboro Police Department Chief Art Ealum was asked Tuesday if enforcing a lower speed limit was the best use of officers' time, Ealum said the department would enforce the speed limit if it were lowered.

But OPD officers had more pressing issues to handle, and were short-handed, Ealum said.

"We are 24 (officers) down," Ealum told city commissioners.

OPD's issue is not unique.

Officials with both the Daviess County Sheriff's Department and the Kentucky State Police's Henderson post said they also have fewer officers now than in the past.

For example, when Trooper Corey King joined KSP's Henderson post 21 years ago, the post had 42 troopers and detectives. Today, the post has 17 road troopers and detectives, a number that doesn't include supervisors.

"That's for six counties," King said.

Lt. Tristan Russelburg, head of OPD's Support Services Division, said the department has 13 openings for officers and 11 officers in various stages of training at the state law enforcement academy.

Although new officers are scheduled to graduate in July, September and December, each new officer has to go spend 16 weeks learning from a field training officer. The earliest OPD's July graduates will be ready to begin solo patrol is in November, Russelburg said.

Russelburg said the department shift officer schedules to make sure shift numbers are met, and more officers are working at times with higher calls for service.

"We do have overtime that we do pay on occasion to meet those minimums," Russelburg said.

Later, Russelburg said, "We've had to move officers around. Some of our Crime Prevention officers are covering the streets" and supplementing the patrol division and at events like Friday After 5.

Maj. Barry Smith, chief deputy for the sheriff's department, said the agency has five new deputies training at the police academy. He added that there are two additional new deputies waiting to go to the academy.

The department increased the size of its deputy roster when it received a COPS grant to hire two deputies in 2019.

In terms of current strength, "We are better off than we were at the beginning of the year, because we have hired laterals and got one out of the academy," Smith said.

A lateral transfer is an experienced officer who joined the department after leaving another law enforcement agency.

Although the department has several deputies at the academy, training has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last year, the academy was closed for several months. On Tuesday, two sheriff's department recruits were sent home to quarantine, after other members of the class tested positive for COVID-19, Smith said.

"Even though they (the academy) are up, we are still having setbacks," Smith said.

As far as daily operations, "We are running minimal staffing on patrol" much of the time, Smith said.

The pandemic shut down much of the courts, which reduced the need for Daviess County deputies to transport inmates to Owensboro for court dates. But the courts are resuming largely normal operations.

"As things return back to normal, workloads will increase," Smith said.

King said KSP as a whole is authorized to have 1,100 to 1,200 troopers. Currently, the agency has 785 troopers statewide.

"Through resignations and potential retirements in August, it could put us at our lowest numbers recorded," King said.

Troopers at Post 16 coordinate with other law enforcement agencies in their six-county service area to cover calls.

"We have to work closely with other agencies, too," King said, to see which agency has a deputy or trooper available to take a call for service.

Officials from each of the agencies said recruitment has become more challenging, as law enforcement competes with the private sector for candidates.

"Our office accepts applications year-round, and we don't have the file of applications we used to," Smith said.

Changes to the state pension system have made law enforcement jobs less attractive. New hires receive a Tier III retirement plan, which is a hybrid 401(k).

"There's no pension to keep a person in law enforcement," Smith said. "We are now competing directly with the private sector" in pay and benefits.

King said officers can now take their hybrid 401(k) accounts with them when they move to another jobs.

KSP has seen troopers retire to take jobs with other law enforcement agencies.

"It's a competitive market," King said.

Trooper retention is a priority, he added.

"We are trying not to train (officers) to send them to another agency," King said. To retain troopers, "the best way we see is obviously salary."

Owensboro city officials have taken steps to retain officers, such as increasing pay and creating retention for officers in 2019. City workers will receive raises in the budget commissioners passed this spring, which goes into effect in July.

"The city has made strides in increasing salaries for law enforcement," Russelburg said.

Salaries are in issue for law enforcement across the state, Russelburg said.

"The pay is below the national average" statewide, Russelburg said. "Changes to the pension system have been challenging as well."

Public perceptions of officers has also hurt the profession.

"I don't think it's a one-prong solution," Smith said. "... You have a lot of dynamics involved. One is pension, the other is pay." Also, "the scrutiny" of law enforcement is an issue, such as "being scrutinized for a split-second decision that someone can sit there and analyze for days."

King said negative perceptions of law enforcement, particularly on social media, hurts recruiting.

"It kind of skews the mind of a young person, (who says) 'do I really want to do that?' " King said.

Smith said, "Some of the support you perceive in the media for law enforcement is rather lacking. Some of that is deserved, and some of it is not deserved."

King and Russelburg said their agencies are focusing more on recruitment, and are working on ways to reach people potentially interested in law enforcement careers.

"We are trying to get out into the community and talk face to face" with members of the public, Russelburg said.

That way, officers can discuss issues with people, and "try to tell people why OPD is a good place to be a part of," Russelburg said.

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting