Small police, sheriff departments struggle to keep officers

Thursday, July 19, 2012
Bollinger County Sheriff's Department deputy Nathan James, left, discusses a case Wednesday with Sgt. Jerry Gilliam. James, who started with the sheriff's department in May, grew up in Bollinger County and intends to stay. He added that his motivation to work in law enforcement didn't have much to do with the compensation. "The benefits aren't on paper," James said. "It goes deep into protect and serve." (ADAM VOGLER)

Would you take a job for $19,500 a year? What if your employer can't afford health insurance for you and your family? What if the job required you risking your health or life every time you went to work? Could anyone blame you for moving on to a higher-paying job after a year or two?

Those are the conditions facing some rural law enforcement agencies, which can be revolving doors for employees.

Bollinger County Sheriff Leo McElrath operates a department with a budget of about $458,000. The department employs eight law enforcement officers, including McElrath and his chief deputy. McElrath hires new deputies at the highest salary the county can afford, $19,500. The cash-strapped county can't afford health insurance for the deputies.

"New deputies we hire come out of the academy," McElrath said. "I will take some with experience if they'll start at that salary. If I'm lucky, they'll stay two years. They'll get comfortable on the job, then start looking for better pay and benefits."

Employees from rural Missouri law enforcement agencies are snatched up by the agencies with the best pay or benefit packages.

The Bollinger County Sheriff's Department loses many of its best employees to the Cape Girardeau and Jackson police departments and the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff's Department, McElrath said.

"I think it's pretty common for people to consistently look for jobs that pay better and have better benefits," said Dr. Michael Brown, a retired faculty member from Southeast Missouri State University's Department of Criminal Justice. "People will tend to go to those agencies where they feel most comfortable."

People don't go into law enforcement for the money, Brown said. They are attracted to the field because they think it would be an interesting occupation. Many people who go into law enforcement are generally attracted to service occupations, he said. People often leave the field because of financial reasons or to raise a family, but they later return.

"People are attracted to law enforcement because it is a steady occupation," Brown said. "There is the perception that it is an interesting job. As a patrol officer, you really don't know what you're going to do on any given shift."

Perry County Sheriff Gary Schaaf said turnover within his department was a problem until 2010, when voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax for law enforcement.

In 2011 the tax provided $482,000 that the county used for auto repairs, purchases of new patrol cars, equipment upgrades, gasoline purchases and maintenance, County Treasurer Veronica Hershey said.

Funds from the tax allow his department to start new employees at a salary of $21,840 with health insurance available after 90 days, Schaaf said. Employees are eligible for a raise to $25,700 after six months, Schaaf said.

A similar tax in Cape Girardeau County passed in 2006. The tax dedicated funds road paving but also provided more funding for the sheriff's department to hire more employees and to raise salaries.

Cape Girardeau County Sheriff John Jordan has said the tax worked. Turnover was 26 percent in 2006, but was reduced to about 9 percent by 2010.

"Going to work without health insurance in law enforcement is a bad idea," Brown said. "Benefits vary from department to department. Some departments are at the high end of the pay scale and their turnover is very low."

St. Charles and Creve Coeur are among the highest-paying police departments in Missouri, and never have recruiting problems, Brown said.

Scranton, Pa., officials slashed pay for police and firefighters to minimum wage last week, Brown pointed out.

Brown said people entering law enforcement should look for counties and municipalities that have good tax bases to pay better wages to public safety personnel.

Southeast's Department of Criminal Justice graduated a class of more than 20 students in November, he said. The market for tax-funded law enforcement jobs seems to be getting a little better, Brown said.

"We are still getting phone calls from Illinois, Kentucky and Missouri," Brown said. "They are looking for officers. Right now, there seem to be more jobs coming open. Public safety is one of those issues that no mayor wants to try to explain to their constituents as a problem."

Expensive training

Hiring and training new personnel is expensive and time-consuming, Jackson chief James Humphreys said.

"During a hire, you're down two officers. You have a guy training with another officer in a field program for a certain amount of months," Humphreys said. "If they decide they want to move on to better things, you've spent a year on those guys. That's where it becomes a burden."

New hires at Jackson have a beginning wage of $29,000 per year, with health benefits. But even at that rate, employees sometimes look to move along to bigger departments.

"It could be Cape Girardeau. It could be St. Louis," Humphreys said. "For a long time down here in this area, it seemed like we were a revolving door. We're all pretty close, as far as salaries go now."

It's not just about money, according to Cape Girardeau Police Department officer Darin Hickey. At $32,900 with benefits, the department has among the highest starting salaries of Southeast Missouri law enforcement agencies, Hickey said.

Cape Girardeau has a vehicle-readiness program, in which certain officers can take their patrol cars home.

"That's a benefit that we have that some agencies do not. Having the vehicles at officers' homes is more of a benefit for the community than for the officers," he said.

When he was a patrol officer, Hickey was occasionally called out on an emergency directly from his home.

Still, the department has lost officers to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Border Patrol and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

"I would never say guys come to the Cape Girardeau Police Department because of pay," Hickey said. "It could be to expand their careers. It could be any number of things. Law enforcement gets into your blood, and you're going to do it."


Pertinent address:

Marble Hill, MO

Perryville, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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