By COLLEEN MCCARTHY
After losing more than one-third of its staff in just a few years, Starkville Police Chief David Lindley said the department is struggling to maintain the quality service the city expects, but will continue to do the best it can.
Since July 1, 2009, the department has lost 20 officers: two retired, three relocated due to be closer to their families, four were terminated, one lieutenant became a private contractor in Afghanistan, one lieutenant now works for the district attorney’s office, a sergeant will become the new chief deputy for the Oktibbeha County’s Sheriff’s Department and an officer will join as a deputy, a detective was recruited for federal law enforcement, five veteran officers joined the Mississippi Highway Patrol and one officer now works for the Starkville School District.
“Of the officers we’ve lost, the majority of them went to jobs that had more benefits and were at the state and federal level,” Lindley said. “It’s hard on us because we’re in a constant hiring and training mode. It is, of course, a compliment that some of the state and federal agencies have come in here and recruited our people.”
SPD and the city are looking for ways to help curb the department’s retention problem in a number of ways, including a 3 percent pay raise for city employees.
“Pay is not the only issue, but it certainly is one of the issues,” Lindley said. “Pay is not a motivator, but lack of pay can be a de-motivator.”
For a department the size of the SPD, a loss of 20 officers in less than three years is a huge hit. Due to understaffing, the department has had to cut or reduce certain programs so officers could focus on patrol.
“This year, we were not able to teach D.A.R.E. We’re running short in manpower in terms of detectives, narcotics (and) community-oriented policing. All of your specialized units are struggling right now because we’ve had to transfer people to uniformed patrol in order to keep providing basic service,” Lindley said. “One way that we’re able to still provide a high level of service is our supervisors are all highly experienced veterans who are very good at what they do. They step in and take up a lot of the slack. That’s the reason that the public, in spite of these difficulties, has not noticed a change. But if it were not for our sergeants, lieutenants and captains, we would be struggling more than we are.”
Even the chief himself has taken to wearing a uniform on a regular basis instead of a suit and tie in case he, too, is needed out on a call.
In the last six months, the department has hired five new officers, including one senior officer, but it is still six officers short.
“Recruiting is not our problem. Retention is our problem,” Lindley said. “The turnover rate nationwide in municipal law enforcement is about eight percent annually, so some turnover is systemic and expected. What we have become is a target for state and federal agencies because they know we produce a good product.”
Although they are making progress in hiring, officers need not only training, but also experience within the community before they can perform at the level of an officer who has been with the department for some time.
“When you lose a senior officer, it takes about a year to a year and a half to be able to get somebody in (and) replace that officer to where they’re at that level of functionality. They have to learn streets, procedures, have to be trained through the academy and we have a 10-week Field Training Officer program that they have to go through,” Lindley said. “Then they have to do things like learn the community, learn the different segments of our population that they serve as to where the hot spots are, who are the people that get in the most trouble. When you lose a senior officer, you lose that institutional knowledge or experience knowledge that allows them to be able to handle a situation.”
Lindley said he expects it will take the department at least one more year before it has the 55 officers that it should have.
“We’re not suffering through anything that any other department isn’t suffering through. As the economy is difficult, you get a lot of good recruits, but the ones that can move on do move on for more money and opportunities,” he said. “We’re struggling, but we’re not whining about it and we’re going to continue to provide the best service with the resources that we do have.”