(WJHL) – Across the board, the story is almost the same.
Law enforcement agencies across the region struggle to keep their ranks full. Even with filled positions, most say it’s difficult to meet the demand of increasing workloads.
In Hawkins County, Sheriff Ronnie Lawson says the problem cost taxpayers more than $80,000 in the past 18 months from paid-time-off cashouts alone.
That figure increases once he adds the money spent on training and gear. Lawson estimates it costs about $37,000 to send a deputy through academy training, taking the overtime pay to fill the new-hire’s spot into consideration.
He said his department lost 74 employees over the past two years. That’s more than half of the department, which operates at full capacity with 117 employees.
Nearly half of the deputies who have left Hawkins County Sheriff’s Department were employed for less than six months, and more than half stayed with the department for less than a year.
“One of the big things is retention, employee retention,” Lawson said. “We have very few people apply for the job.
“If we don’t retain those people, then we’re spending that money out the door and just wasting it.”
The bottom line
The issue isn’t contained to Hawkins County.
Sheriffs and police chiefs across the region agreed – there aren’t enough officers for the workload.
“A lot of officers on patrol, they’re going from call to call to call and they don’t get much downtime,” Lawson said, adding, “If I don’t have enough people on a shift, then I’ve got to pay overtime to fill those positions, to have enough people out there.”
Lawson attributed his struggles to retain deputies to the starting pay. In order to stay within his department’s budget, starting pay for deputies in Hawkins County is $29,000 a year.
Surrounding agencies like Kingsport Police Department pay up to $39,000 for officers with prior experience. Out of the 30 deputies Lawson lost over the past 18 months, nine of them left to be employed at another agency.
“It’s been an ongoing problem where sheriff’s departments, including Hawkins County, has trained officers to go to other jobs and other agencies, which is a huge expense for Hawkins County taxpayers,” Lawson said.
Of the agencies who responded to requests for data, Carter County Sheriff’s Office came in with the lowest starting pay at $24,805 per year. Depending on experience, some agencies offer up to $39,000 per year for employees starting at the department.
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Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley said he fought to give his deputies a STEP increase to entice them to stay with the department, but he admitted that it’s a challenge to retain quality staff with the current pay rate of $29,000 per year.
Hensley said Unicoi County faces a unique challenge with staffing as he is tasked with staffing two detention centers.
He said the county is not currently able to house male and female inmates in the same building while sticking to state regulations, so he is stuck with staffing two buildings with part-time employees paid at $10.30 an hour.
“The county cannot afford to build a jail at this time, and I understand that,” Hensley said. “I think the answer to this would be, probably eight to 10 years down the road, there’s going to have to be a jail built in Unicoi County.”
The other factors
In addition to lower pay in the county, sheriffs say their offices are responsible for paperwork that isn’t common in city police departments, further stretching the workload on strained sheriff’s departments.
That makes it hard on smaller departments like in Unicoi County, where Hensley said he usually has one or two deputies per shift to answer calls.
“Unlike a policeman, deputy sheriffs or sheriffs are responsible for civil process,” Hensley said. “That means subpoenas for court, court orders, et cetera. There’s an enormous amount of papers that comes in.”
The dangers of the profession turn some away, Washington County, Va., Sheriff Fred Newman said, and over the years, the number of dangerous calls, like domestic violence calls, has escalated.
He estimated that calls have tripled in his 20-year stint as sheriff.
“We used to be busy on Friday and Saturday nights, but now we’re busy virtually every night of the week,” he said. “Domestics (domestic violence calls) have certainly increased. It used to be domestics more on the weekend, now it’s not unusual to have a domestic call at 6 or 7 o’clock in the morning on a weekday.”
Newman joined other LEA leaders in saying the rise in illegal drug use is a chief contributor to the increased workload, landing more people in jail.
Buchanan County Sheriff Ray Foster said part of the problem for him is his department is staffed based on the population of the county and not the crime rate.
“You get one deputy per 1,500 (residents), and they aren’t looking at crime ratio,” Foster said.
Greeneville Police Captain Tim Davis added positions don’t garner as many applications as they used to. An open position would that would attract 50 applications 10 years ago, he said, brings in about 10 applications today.
Others say the ebb and flow of personnel is predictable. Abingdon Police Chief Tony Sullivan said he’s learned to look to the national economy when it comes to staffing his department.
“Anytime the economy is good, we always have staffing problems,” he said. “We get applicants when the economy is bad (because) people can’t find jobs in their field.”
Filling the positions
The county commissions and city councils that generate operating budgets are responsible for each agency’s finances.
As Foster said, some base deputy positions off of population. As the region’s population decreases, so do the positions at their respective law enforcement agencies.
National trends show that the workforce in law enforcement falling from 2013 onwards.
In Unicoi County, Hensley said he’s doing what he can to entice his part-time correctional officers to stay by bumping them to full-time after a year of work.
The problem, he said, always comes back to finances. He said he does his best as sheriff to work within his means and provide for the county without shouldering the burden onto taxpayers.
“The old saying is true, you get what you pay for,” he said. “You can ask anybody that.
“But there’s also a saying, ‘If you take care of an employee, they take care of you.'”