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Local police departments continue to struggle with staffing in 2023

The Kent Police Department
Eman Abu-Khaled
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Ideastream Public Media
The Kent Police Department is one of many across the region that's continuing to struggle with staffing in the new year.

Police departments across the country have been struggling to maintain staffing for a variety of reasons. Departments in Northeast Ohio are not immune to what some are calling a staffing crisis.

Retirements and resignations
Staffing in the region is kind of a mixed bag. They range from just barely being fully staffed to needing up to 40 more officers in their department. The Summit County Sheriff’s Office is one of the departments with the most need.

Kandy Fatheree.jpg
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Summit County Sheriff Kandy Fatheree's department is struggling with recruitment and retention.

“We did a massive hiring back in the 90s when we opened the new jail and then opened an additional wing for the jail. All those employees came in," Sheriff Kandy Fatheree said. "They all became eligible for retirement in the last two years and this year as well.”

Because of all these retirements, the Sheriff’s Office is looking to hire more than 40 officers. It’s important to note this isn’t just a Northeast Ohio problem. A recent report from the Police Executive Research Forum found that retirements and resignations are putting a lot of pressure on staffing levels all over the country. From 2020 to 2021, officer staffing levels decreased by 3.48%, and resignations increased by 42.7% from 2019.

Retention
There are a lot of other factors that departments are struggling with in trying to recruit and retain officers. Pay is one of them, and most departments have experienced officers leaving for higher paying positions.

“We’ve lost a couple officers to other police departments, you know for reasons that it might be a little more pay, it might be a better work schedule, there might be less activity in another jurisdiction in another city," Lt. Michael Miller with the Kent Police Department said.

The Summit County Sheriff's Office is also struggling with this.

"I think I've lost four or five, I think about five deputies in the last seven months who have left the sheriff's office to go to other police departments, because they get a higher rate of pay in those other police departments," Fatheree said.

Many departments are raising pay or offering retention bonuses.

"I think that we do fairly well you know compared to other departments in Portage County, but there are other departments like up around the Cleveland area, the Cleveland suburbs that pay very very well," Lewis said. "And some of those are hard to compete with."

Recruitment
Departments say less people want to be police officers nowadays. A lot of hypotheses are thrown around as to why that could be. Some people say the new generation just isn’t as interested in working in public service.

“There’s so many opportunities to work from home now, and I think that really just the whole profession has become less attractive to people," Lewis said.

This lack of interest is confusing to Lt. Bryan Wagner with the Medina Police Department.

"I've been here for almost 20 years and wouldn't want to do anything else and really love and enjoy what I do," Wagner said. "So I'm not sure what the generation now sees as not appealing as what we do."

Practically every department has seen a decrease in applicants in recent years.

"You know years ago, we'd have 200 people take a test," Wagner said. "Now we're getting 30-40, somewhere in that ballpark."

Demonstrators hold BLM and Police the Police signs as an Akron police officer stands at a barricade
Kabir Bhatia
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Ideastream Public Media
Demonstrators standoff with officers outside Akron City Hall as they protest the fatal police shooting of Jayland Walker.

Another issue departments mention is the national conversation around police, especially after George Floyd's murder in 2020 which caused national outrage and calls to defund the police. In the aftermath, Cleveland voters passed a ballot initiative that created a civilian police review board in Nov. 2021. Voters in Akron followed suit the following year after Jayland Walker was killed by Akron police. Officers say the negative conversations about police these movements prompted could be stopping young people from pursing law enforcement.

Solutions
Every department seems to be taking a different approach to make careers in law enforcement more attractive. In Youngstown, Community Liaison Officer Malik Mostella is working on launching a youth police academy for kids as young as 10.

“People who are interested in being in law enforcement just bring them along, teach them stuff along the way, and then once they reach the age of 21 there are programs in place, even right now, we have programs in place that are able to help send people to the police academy," Mostella said. "And then make them a part of the department once they finish school.”

A couple other departments are trying to make going to the police academy more accessible for more diverse populations. The Summit County Sheriff's Office is paying people to go to the police academy.

“So what we’ve done is we’ve created a cadet program where we pay them an hourly wage to attend and complete the academy," Sheriff Fatheree said. "That helps to relieve that financial burden.”

Kent is also doing this.

"The position that we're in now, we hired three people last year who didn't even have the police academy yet, and we're paying them an officer salary," Lewis said. "And we're paying their academy tuition."

Departments are often willing to foot the bill of training new officers if they’ll join their force, but that takes time.

"It'll be midsummer until we realize those officers, and by then, we're expected to have three more retirements," Lewis said.

Departments also will poach each other's officers, a practice that Kent did for the first time last year, Lewis said. Mostella calls the profession a "revolving door."

"We're still losing people because of retirement," Mostella said. "We're still losing people, because people are still leaving."

Another thing departments are doing is assessing the way they approach recruitment. Medina created a new recruitment team, and Cleveland is looking to hire a marketing company to develop more modern advertising. Cleveland is trying to better communicate what the job of a police officer is to hopefully engage more applicants, Chief Public Safety Officer Karrie Howard said.

"We are rewriting a more detailed job description based on feedback from new officers," Howard said. "In short, adjustments are being [made] to clearly describe the rewarding career of a Cleveland police officer."

Work life balance is also a huge issue. People maybe don’t want to take a job where they have to work long hours and holidays so often. Kent’s department is trying out 10-hour work days, Lewis said. That means longer shifts but a four day work week.

"There's some mixed reviews there," Lewis said.

The department also offered 12 hour workdays for the patrol division.

"The officers, they took a look at 12 hour shifts, and they eventually voted it down," Lewis said. "They didn't want to make that switch, so it's longer shifts for sure. But it translates into more days off, which is attractive to a lot of people."

Pay seems to be one of the big solutions for departments' retention problem. Departments have been raising pay to become more competitive with more financially well-off areas. In Youngstown, a pay increase caused officers who previously left the department to come back, Mostella said.

Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb and interim Police Chief Wayne Drummond
Nick Castele
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Ideastream Public Media
Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb, flanked by interim Police Chief Wayne Drummond, speaks at a news conference announcing a grant for police surveillance technology. Bibb has been touting his administration's efforts to bolster police recruitment.

Cleveland approved pay raises for officers last year, but that's not all they've done to try and boost recruitment.

"We also have changed the culture. Before we got in office, our officers were not allowed to wear ball caps. They weren't allowed have beards or tattoos," Mayor Justin Bibb said on Ideastream Public Media's Sound of Ideas earlier this month. "We changed that, and many of our suburban peers were poaching our officers because of these small cultural things."

Bibb also spoke about needing to change the national conversation about law enforcement being a desirable career path.

"We as a nation have to have a hard conversation about why law enforcement is an honorable, good profession," Bibb said.

Fatheree thinks the young people in law enforcement will help lead these hard conversations.

"Those people coming in have amazing ideas, and they're coming in with all that excitement and seeing things from a different viewpoint," Fatheree said. "And they will be, in my opinion, critical in assisting in the change that is currently developing in law enforcement across the nation."

Law enforcement as a career is changing for the better, Fatheree said.

"I really think that law enforcement now is focusing more on positive change that is in line with what the community, the public needs and wants," Fatheree said.

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Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media. A Northeast Ohio native and lifelong listener of public radio, Abigail started in public radio as a news intern at WKSU. She graduated in 2022 with a Bachelor of Arts in political science from Kent State University.