It was sad for me to read in last week’s paper about the shortage of officers at my beloved Norwich Police. The original Norwich Police Force became the Norwich City Police in 1914. My retirement as Police Chief coincided with the 100th Anniversary of the City Police in 2014. During that one hundred year period, I was a member of the force for 33 years and 7 months which, then, was one-third of its existence. So you might say I have some skin in this game along with blood, sweat, and tears.
I am not ignorant of the changes which have happened in the time since my end of active service. The transformation of work ethics and attitude has slowly crept into all professions for some time; not good, not bad, but certainly different. The wake-up call for me came when a recently hired officer with life-time roots in the city’s 6th Ward transferred out to another central New York police department. That was a guy who had the potential to become a future police chief, I thought.
In all my years there, the department was seldom fully staffed; there was always someone out for one reason or another creating a hole in the duty schedule. Some years ago, the NPD was six officers short during the busy summer months, but not by vacant positions. That shortage was created by sickness and injury which offered a light at the end of the tunnel through the healing process.
The chief was correct when he said if he hired from the civil service list, those officers won’t be functioning until 2021. This is because of the lengthy hiring process and mandated training, and even after training, there’s no guarantee the officer will stay. Some people learn they aren’t cut out for police work because it’s not for the faint of heart. It did catch my attention when the word “desperate” was used to describe the situation.
If this is a desperate situation, which I take to mean officer safety is at issue; action needs to be taken now. A course of action might be using part-time, off-duty officers from other agencies. Anyone who worked under my command at the NPD knows I was against part-time officers, but then again, I never used the word desperate to describe working conditions. If the PBA (the officer’s union) has concerns with part-timers, I suggest paying the part-time officers the same hourly wage as a new hire officer until the staffing issue is resolved.
While we’re talking about wages, last week’s article also said a sign-on bonus was being considered. That’s a whole new can of worms which is being opened out of desperation. If bonuses attract experienced lateral transfers hopefully the bonus money will be spread over a long period and not offered in a lump sum. If an officer is motivated by money, some other agency may entice them to leave for greener pastures. Employee loyalty should be inspired, not purchased.
The sign-on bonus is also problematic because it may cause new-hire officers walking in the door making more money than current officers with more seniority who already know how to do the job of a Norwich officer. That’s might be a morale killer.
Another observation which caught my attention was relaxing standards to attract new officers. This was already done with the residency limits which apparently didn’t help manpower issues. The other condition mentioned was visible tattoos. I never understood why a person once hired as a police officer, who is told what uniform to wear, what they must carry on their belts, their shift assignments, when they can eat, which car they drive, and after all that, is it a shock to be told their tattoos must be covered. An easy fix for the arm-sleeve-tattoo issue is to have everyone wear long sleeve shirts year-round.
One thing I take an exception to in the article was the statement; “The department – as with many small agencies – has a history of police, namely rookies, leaving for better pay, better opportunities, and a better chance of advancement with different specialties in urban areas.” In the 18 years I was police chief I recall two officers who left for other agencies; one to Greene PD (hardly urban) the other to NYS Courts which required only a shoulder patch change while working in the same place – Norwich City Court. Retiring at the rank of Police Officer after 20 years of grinding it out on the beat is nothing of which to be ashamed.
Competitive wages certainly help keep officers from departing. There are also the many intangibles which satisfy officers; Esprit de corps, good training opportunities, fair and impartial discipline, security and stability also keep officers in place. Cops crave solid leadership from those above them, appointed and elected, who will value them and treat them as the single most important part of the safety of this community - because that’s exactly what they are. You don’t hear this enough, but the majority of this town supports you and wants you safe. Hang tough coppers, you will all get through this and be better because of it.