It’s a trend in law enforcement agencies across the nation.
There are fewer and fewer officers, and people aren’t exactly lining up around the block to apply for the open positions.
And it’s not just the large, metro areas with rampant violent crime that are seeing dwindling numbers, either.
Smaller communities, like Norfolk, have taken a hit as well.
Chief Don Miller with the Norfolk Police Division said the issue of officer recruitment and retention is complex, so a multi-pronged approach is being taken to address the challenges.
“In terms of hiring, one of the things that we’re doing — and the city council supported this — is something I haven’t seen anybody do before. Instead of a hiring bonus, we’re doing a recruitment bonus,” Miller said.
Existing officers have a lot of contacts, and they know what kind of person would be right for the job — who would make a good cop and who wouldn’t.
“So if they recruit an officer who applies and we end up hiring that person and they get past probation, we’ll give our existing officer a $1,000 recruitment bonus. That does a couple of different things — it helps support the officers that we already have and keep them here a little bit longer, and they share the positives that the police department has to offer with other people,” Miller said.
The hiring process at the police division is intensive and actually takes about a year before new officers are on the street. Two officers were recently given a conditional hiring offer, which will go into effect upon completion of final examinations.
But Miller said two or three more are still needed before the division is fully staffed.
“It takes time, because we’re very careful when we hire people. We only hire the very best people we can find,” he said.
Once a new officer is on board, they’ll find a lot of benefits to working in Norfolk, not the least of which is the support of the mayor and city council along with many members of the community.
“Norfolk is a great-sized community to be a police officer for a variety of reasons — we’re big enough where we have a little bit of everything. Cops like to work. It takes a special kind of person to be a police officer,” Miller said.
In smaller communities, a police officer will see some activity, but not a lot over a long period of time. In the metro areas, there is a lot of crime, but officers are often highly specialized, such as only working accident scenes all day, he said.
“Our officers need to be able to handle everything from a barking dog call to being the first on the scene of a major homicide investigation and everything in between. We always say we’re professional generalists — we do a little bit of everything.”
That requires a lot of training in myriad topics, from the day an officer is hired until retirement.
But because Norfolk’s officers are held to such a high standard and trained so extensively, the division has been called the training ground for other agencies, Miller said.
“We train them very, very well, and then they can go to other agencies and get more money or go to the metro if they want to live in a bigger community,” he said.
That’s why retention is so important. While it’s not like Norfolk officers can’t pay their bills, money is always a question, Miller said.
So officers were questioned as to what kinds of things they’d be interested in seeing implemented at the division.
One idea was to make adjustments to uniforms, Miller said.
“We’re looking at external vest carriers for the officers. There’s a big benefit to that, because you take some of the weight on your gun belt and redistribute it. If you wear that gun belt with all that weight for 30 years, it’s hard on your back,” he said.
A recent big change at the division was adjusting the rank structures. All of the officers who were at the same rank were brought to the same pay, giving a step increase to most of the staff, with the exception of Miller, who did not take his increase.
With that baseline established, a master police officer program is now in the works, he said, and everyone at the patrol officer rank will be eligible.
“It’s not a promotion, but a certification where you have to demonstrate certain things. Master police officers will get an extra monthly bonus for maintaining that certification, but if they don’t, they lose it,” Miller said.
Requirements for becoming a master police officer include longevity, but the exact number of years has yet to be set. Advanced training is another requirement, such as advanced accident, advanced interview/interrogation or another area.
“We also want them to be involved in one of the extra activities in the police division, whether it’s our tactical team, honor guard, accident team. We have a lot of extra things that take extra time and commitment, and we want the officers to be involved in that,” Miller said.
Being an instructor at the division is another mandatory step. Miller said the division uses a lot of in-house training where officers are sent to a trainer and come back to instruct everyone else.
Positive performance evaluations, fitness standards and a willingness to get involved round out the requirements for a master police officer.
“What that all does is continue to improve our training, and the officers have motivation to work for it. It can improve the morale and give them goals to strive for. It’s also going to help the community, because we’re going to have better officers.
“We want our officers to know as part of this new culture that we have high expectations of them, but we are also going to support them.”