<p>Wilkins</p>

Wilkins

<p>Graham</p>

Graham

<p>Locklear</p>

Locklear

LUMBERTON — Local law enforcement agencies are facing staffing shortages that add to the challenges of serving and protecting their communities.

Robeson County Sheriff Burnis Wilkins told The Robesonian there are 24 vacancies within the Robeson County Detention Center and about six sheriff’s deputy vacancies. Three of the vacancies include positions left open by Detention Center officers dismissed after they were charged recently in connection with an identity theft case. He also said several employees have retired and more plan to retire within the next month.

“While law enforcement is truly a noble profession, it seems to be an undesirable one at the moment,” Wilkins said. “With short staffing within the detention center comes a threat of injury.”

The sheriff said a cell block may hold eight to 16 inmates, but immediate staffing might not be enough to “thwart criminal activity within a cell until backup deputies arrive from the patrol division.”

“This is dangerous to both staff and the inmate population,” he said. “We are allowing overtime staffing to fill the void but even that isn’t enough.”

Rowland Chief of Police Hubert Graham said the department has three police officers of a seven officer capacity. There are about 14 auxiliary officers that assist the department for part-time pay.

“It’s competitive,” he said of recruiting officers.

“Everybody’s got a shortage,” Graham added.

A Police Executive Research Forum survey conducted in June 2021 that garnered 194 responses showed “an overall 18% increase in the resignation rate in 2020-21, compared to 2019-20.”

The survey also found “a 45% increase in the retirement rate” in responding departments.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the “overall employment of police and detectives” to increase by 7% from 2020 to 2030.

“About 67,100 openings for police and detectives are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire,” according to USBLS.

“While a desire for public safety may result in a need for more officers, demand for employment is expected to vary depending on location, driven largely by local and state budgets. Even when crime rates fall, demand for police services to maintain public safety is expected to continue,” the USBLS states.

Multiple news reports this year have documented police shortages. Areas mentioned in the reports range from Winston-Salem and High Point, to Asheville, Atlanta and Seattle.

Recruitment

“We are losing decades of experience through those that are retiring and trying to fill those spots is tough. Trying to recruit younger people into this profession is difficult as many don’t seem to care about the long term job benefits but seek higher salaries, flexibility in schedules and sign on bonuses,” Wilkins said.

There were 53 students enrolled in BLET courses from 2019-2020 and 42 in 2020-2021, according to Cheryl Hemric, RCC’s Public Information officer. There were 67 students enrolled in 2021-2022.

Completing training in the program also is a strenuous process, said Rudy Locklear, director of RCC Basic Law Enforcement Training Academy and Criminal Justice Technology Program.

“The BLET academy is competitive, and the training is rigorous. Candidates undergo written exams, agility and endurance drills. For those who persevere, the good news is that our program has a 100% hiring rate and our graduates have found employment with law enforcement agencies throughout North Carolina,” Locklear said in a statement.

However, even during challenges such as police staffing shortages, education must continue to produce officers needed in the workforce using the same standard, he said.

“While recruiting for Basic Law Enforcement Training Academy Cadets, it is critical we maintain the same high bar for basic recruit standards as we always have. The goal is to ensure we graduate cadets that exhibit a good work ethic, the ability to make good decisions and judgement calls, and who have a heart to protect and serve their community,” Locklear said.

Retention

The Red Springs Police Department hires officers on a three-year contract, Chief Brent Adkins said.

If the officers leave before the three-year contract expires, they must pay back a percentage of money spent by the town on items like uniforms, he said.

Adkins said the department has seen young officers join for experience before moving on to other jobs elsewhere.

Graham told The Robesonian he is working to get more equipment for the small department to help retain officers. The department struggled to do so about two years ago because of pay constraints.

“I was losing people left and right because of pay,” he said.

Pay

Rowland currently offers competitive pay with other law enforcement agencies in the county.

Fairmont police officers get the lowest entry-level pay in the county. However, town commissioners have voted to support a pay study that calls for raises for town employees in the new budget cycle for the 2022-23 fiscal year. A formal vote on the matter is to take place in June.

The following is a list of entry-level salaries for some local and state law enforcement agencies from the highest to the lowest:

• North Carolina State Highway Patrol – $48,569

• The University of North Carolina at Pembroke Campus Police – $43,500

• North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation Agent – $43,406 (with no prior experience)

• Robeson County Sheriff’s Office – $39,600

• Pembroke Police Department – $38,279

• St. Pauls Police Department – $37,461

• Rowland Police Department – $36,500

• Lumberton Police Department – $36,204.11 (associates’ degree 2.5% and 5% for bachelor’s degree)

• Red Springs Police Department – $35,300

• Maxton Police Department – $35,188

• Robeson County Detention Center officer – $34,205

• N.C. Department of Corrections officer $33,130 (0-11 months experience)

• Fairmont Police Department – $30,900

Red Springs Chief of Police Brent Adkins said he plans to ask for raises for his officers.

Sheriff Wilkins said the Sheriff’s Office’s entry-level pay for deputies will increase on July 1 to more than $40,000. He also stated he has requested pay increases for Detention Center officers.

St. Pauls Chief of Police Mike Owens has 13 officers on a 15 officer police force.

“We can’t afford to pay anybody to go through school,” he said.

Owens said there are some people currently involved in the application process for the department.

The department is working to recruit Basic Law Enforcement Training students by sending an officer to speak to them during classes, he said.

Anticop sentiment

In 2020, local law enforcement agencies spoke of staffing challenges that related to anticop sentiment. The Sheriff’s Office lost a deputy and a detective at that time because of the negative perceptions surrounding the law enforcement profession, Wilkins said at that time.

Owens told The Robesonian that sentiment is still lingering.

“You got to really love this job to stay in it,” Graham said.

Graham told The Robesonian when he joined the profession decades ago, the perception of police officers was different.

But, helping others and seeing the results of that aid makes the job worth it, he said.

NC Prisons

Staffing vacancies aren’t localized to police departments alone, they also exist in the state’s prison system.

As of Monday, there were 1,882 vacant correctional officer positions in the prison system, which has “9,263 budget-authorized positions” for correctional officers, said John Bull, a Communications officer for Prisons at the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.

“Staff vacancies are an issue that long pre-date the pandemic, and have been a problem in correctional systems across the country,” Bull said.

The state prison system has hosted hiring events and seen more than 90 employees return to work for the system as correctional officers since the start of 2022, he said.

“Since the implementation of our correctional officer Step Pay Plan in January of 2022, with funding from the budget passed in November, we have seen a consistent increase in correctional officer applications in all three months of the 1st quarter of 2022,” Bull said.

N.C. Prisons has also launched a campaign called “All In” to address vacancies and to retain employees.

“Whatever barriers prevent continued employment with the prison system — whether it’s training, wellness, child care, transportation, etc. — we want to find solutions that will keep our trained professionals ‘All In’ and working for us,” Bull added.

Reach Jessica Horne at 910-416-5165 or via email at [email protected]