MATTHEWS, N.C. — Now more than ever during the pandemic, law enforcement officers are risking their lives to keep our communities safe, and those struggles are made even more difficult by staffing shortages.
Local departments are adding incentives to recruit new officers and keep the ones they have.
“It’s an uphill battle, it definitely is,” said Officer Tim Aycock of the Matthews Police Department.
He said law enforcement as a whole is going through major growing pains and sees it in his colleagues nearly every day.
“They are evaluating their life, you know, do they want to do this, first responder-wise? Because you are definitely putting yourself out there,” Aycock said. “Out there to inevitably come into contact with COVID-19 on calls.”
He said it’s a big risk that some aren’t willing to take, and it’s led to officers leaving. Matthews Police Department has five openings for patrol officers right now.
On top of daily COVID-related absences, Aycock said they’ve been able to shift officers from other units to cover 911 calls as they need, but the shortage is causing other problems.
“You’re talking about people can’t have vacation time, if some people are out sick. If we have another wave internally that could be a huge deal, then you have to worry about more of a burnout factor because those officers are working longer and harder,” he said.
“It’s caused us to rethink how we go about doing things,” said Kannapolis Police Department Chief Terry Spry.
In Kannapolis, Spry has eight openings in his department. He says Kannapolis police have been facing issues similar to Matthews, so he’s shifted his focus to retention, trying to keep the officers he does have.
“I think you try to recruit people to get them here for five years, then you have to look at your retention strategies and things you can offer internally to make them career officers,” he said.
Kannapolis police are moving all of its officers from rotating to fixed shifts, offering two dollars more an hour for those on the night shift and one dollar more for peak-hour officers, even allowing officers to have facial hair if they choose.
“We got to understand society is different today,” Spry said. “It’s more about our interaction than the way we look. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look appropriate and professional, but there’s a way for us to do that and still do the job.”
“It’s kind of like they’re looked at like athletes now because of the signing bonuses and all the different kinds of fringe benefits,” Aycock said.
He said Matthews police are also working on retention, but at the same time trying to compete for hires. They have just put four cadets into basic law enforcement training and they’re paying them to go, which is a first.
“Putting that commitment out to them, showing we really want you here and want to serve our community the best we can -- that’s a huge step,” Aycock said.
Even with the issues, Aycock and Spry said they’re proud of their profession and know their officers will find a way through.
“It’s a lot so we’re trying to figure it out day-by-day and step-by-step,” Aycock said.
The Union County Sheriff’s Office said staffing there is holding steady, mainly because they’re able to hire applicants as detention center officers without any prior law enforcement experience.
Once they put in enough time, the sheriff’s office will send them to basic law enforcement training on the agency’s dime.
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