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An uptick in vacancies within the Wilson Police Department spurred officials to approve a 15 percent increase to the starting salary and pay for officers among three ranks.
“This is not a solution or an attempt to get people to change their mind about leaving the law enforcement profession,” said City Manager Grant Goings. “To me, this is a tool to help the chief continue to be selective in his hiring processes and get the best candidates.”
Vacancies and turnover are nothing new in law enforcement, especially in recent years.
“Nationally there has been ebb and flow. In the days after Sept. 11, a lot of folks were wanting to be first responders, so there was a lot of new interest,” Goings said. “On the other hand, lately there has been negative situations like Ferguson and we’ve seen a contrasting affect at a local level.”
The Wilson Police Department has 123 sworn officers, 97 of whom are at the first three ranks — police officer I, police officer II and senior police officer. Typically the department has about 10 vacancies, but currently there are 13 open positions, so earlier this year, administrative staff looked into the situation.
According to exit interviews, five of the 16 who have left the department since January took other law enforcement jobs while five went into the private sector, three retired and three either were terminated or left for personal reasons such as a family move.
“In municipal government, this is a common overlying reality that is not specific just to police. In a down economy or a recession, local government is very attractive because of job security,” Goings said. “Historically, when the economy picks back up, we’ll have more trouble filling positions citywide.
“We sort of have a perfect storm between baby boomers eligible to retire, the economy picking back up so there are private sector options and the national decline in candidates who are interested in law enforcement. The confluence of those have contributed to the difficulty we’re having.”
While little can be done to buck national trends, officials found the starting salary for Wilson was 11.6 percent below average among peer departments in the region. The average starting salary for a police officer is $39,585 when Wilson is grouped with 18 other cities, but Wilson’s starting salary was $35,409 — above only Fayetteville. The 15 percent increase puts the department’s starting salary at $41,064, which is higher than Greenville, Rocky Mount and Goldsboro.
“What has kept us afloat and our eye off the ball on the salary comparison is the reputation our department has,” Goings said. “There are other departments that have been struggling to recruit for more than a year, but we’ve been fortunate that in the law enforcement profession, Wilson is seen as a desired place of employment because of our focus on community policing and other efforts.”
Police Chief Thomas Hopkins said lowering the standards for new hires is not a worthwhile trade-off to fill vacancies.
“What other departments across the country have done to help with recruiting during the shortage is lowering their qualifications standards, but we’re trying our best to do what we can to address the situation without following suit,” Goings said. “Our last resort would be to lower standards of someone carrying a gun and a Wilson Police Department badge.
“If that means we need to pay more to recruit from the top of the barrel instead of the bottom, then that is one of the wisest investments we can make as a city.”
Doing so does not come for free, though. In fact, the cost of raising the starting salary and paying the 97 officers in the department’s lowest ranks retroactively to July 1 will be about $800,000 a year. Officials said the bulk of the expense will come from lapsed salaries due to vacancies while the rest will come from the city’s fund balance. Currently, the city’s fund balance is at about 30 percent of the general fund budget, which is 5 percent higher than the council’s goal for the fund balance.
“One of the reasons the council set the fund balance target is so when needs arise, we can react quickly and address those problems,” Goings said. “Whether that happens because of a natural disaster, a fire truck is in a wreck and needs to be replaced or we’re having difficulty recruiting highly qualified police officers, we’ve intentionally kept ourselves in a financially strong position to address needs as they arise.”
Goings has the authority to adjust pay ranges, but due to the financial implications of his recommendation, the city manager broached the subject with the City Council during a Nov. 2 work session. The council supported Goings’ efforts to address the vacancies, but long-term financing of the raises will be addressed during next year’s budget cycle.
Administrators have notified employees throughout the city of the pay increase within the police department.
“We’re committed to attracting and retaining the best public servants we can,” Goings said. “Hiring highly trained, educated and ethical police officers is of the utmost importance and a wise investment in our community.”
Hopkins assured residents that the vacancies have not jeopardized public safety. Personnel has been pulled from support roles to ensure all shifts are covered. And according to crime statistics, the staffing has not negatively affected Part 1 crimes, which are the most serious crimes such as homicide, aggravated assault, rape and robbery. There were 134 Part 1 crimes reported to the department in September — the lowest monthly rate since February 2015.
Officials are optimistic that the pay increase will help recruit qualified candidates to fill the 13 vacancies as well as an additional four positions the council approved in June to bolster the department’s focus on community policing.
“We have candidates that shop around,” Hopkins said. “Many candidates like how involved our agency is with the community and they like the direction we’re headed. They like having the opportunity to interact with the community, especially the youth.”