By HEATHER WRIGHT — Following a Sept. 26 police-involved shooting, eight officers from the Hyattsville City Police Department (HCPD) have been placed on administrative leave, pending an investigation  According to a City of Hyattsville official statement, this is standard operating procedure, but it further depletes an already-diminished force. Police departments across the nation are facing staffing shortages, and the HCPD is no exception.

In an interview prior to the Sept. 26 incident, Public Information Officer and Acting Lt. Zachary Nemser said that the department was authorized for 46 sworn (vs. civilian, or non-sworn) positions and currently had 38 filled (83% capacity). A deficit of eight positions was also noted during a June 3 city council meeting and during a January interview with then-HCPD Public Information Officer Lt. Chris Purvis.

Although the shortage itself is not new, it has worsened in the past few years. A Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) final assessment report for 2014 noted a shortage of two sworn positions (40 authorized vs. 38 actual), as did a 2017 HCPD annual report (44 authorized sworn positions vs. 42 actual). However, according to City of Hyattsville Public Information Officer Jake Rollow, in June 2018, the HCPD had a shortage of six sworn positions (44 authorized vs. 38 actual).

Other area police departments are also dealing with shortages: In September, the Bowie Police Department reported that they were authorized for 67 sworn positions with 64 filled (96% capacity); Greenbelt, 53 authorized with 48 filled (91%); Takoma Park, 44 authorized with 34 (77%); Laurel, 70 authorized and 63 filled (90%).

Contributing factors

Nemser said that police recruitment “ebbs and flows” with the economy: “When the economy is good, police jobs are not necessarily appetizing.” During our economy’s current decade-long expansion, recruiting and retaining police officers nation-wide has gotten more difficult.

Nemser also noted that a rise in the negative perception of police officers following the 2014 shooting and unrest in Ferguson, Mo., has led to a declining interest in policing as a career. “Now the big drop off is what we would call post-Ferguson,” he said. “All of a sudden, it was not necessarily looked at as a positive thing to become a police officer.”

“Now we’ve been incredibly fortunate in our community that we believe we have a very good relationship with citizens and have a ton of positive interactions,” continued Nemser, “but that doesn’t mean we’re not affected by stuff that goes on nationally.”

A healthy economy and negative perceptions of police were both cited by The Washington Post and Police Executive Research Forum think tank in D.C. as factors in the decline of applicants for sworn positions with most U.S. police departments.

On a more local level, Nemser described how many qualified individuals apply to larger agencies, such as Anne Arundel County and Baltimore County Police Departments that can offer higher salaries, a wider array of specialty areas and assignments, and more room for job advancement. Nemser pointed out that Anne Arundel began offering a $20,000 signing bonus for lateral transfers, which Hyattsville can’t compete with.

HCPD’s 2017 CALEA final assessment report offered a similar perspective: “Due to a national trend of police scrutiny, [fewer] young people are gravitating to a career in law enforcement. Because all agencies are experiencing this, the smaller applicant pool is being dominated by larger police agencies.”

According to a third-party compensation study reported at the June 3 Hyattsville City Council meeting, HCPD’s benefit package for officers is competitive with those of similar agencies, but salary ranges were found, on average, to be below market rate.

Nemser also noted that HCPD does not have collective bargaining, whereas some other area police departments, including Bowie, Greenbelt and Laurel Police Departments do. (Takoma Park has collective bargaining for corporals and lower ranks, according to Public Information Officer Cathy Plevy.)

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Chief Amal Awad, the City of Hyattsville’s eight police chief, poses for a photo after her swearing-in ceremony. Photo by Krissi Humbard

HCPD experienced a significant leadership change in 2018, as former-Chief Douglas Holland retired in July after almost 20 years in the position and Amal Alwad was sworn in Dec. 2018, becoming the first woman and first African American chief in HCPD history. When asked if this change impacted the shortage, Nemser replied, “I don’t think so. I mean, there have been some people who have retired recently, that felt it was a good time to leave. Change is difficult, especially if you’ve spent your whole career here. So maybe instead of starting over with a new chief, they chose to retire, but I can’t say that they decided to retire because of the [new] chief.”

Nemser added, “[The leadership change] has been rather smooth. Again, change is tough for some people. There are a lot of new ideas floating around. Some people agree with all of them; some people don’t, but you’re going to have that with any regime change.” Nemser reported that Chief Awad was “unavailable for comment” on the larger issue of the officer shortage.

Potential impacts

The police department has a minimum staffing level that they have to maintain, according to Nemser: “There is always a certain number of police officers who are policing the city at all times.” With a shortage, police officers are more likely to have to work overtime and be denied vacation requests in order to meet this level. Overtime work and vacation denial can hurt staff morale and could lead to burn out.”

Additionally, Nemser said that shortages keep the HCPD from staffing special assignment units or being able to create new ones. He cited the special assignment team, saying, “We currently have someone going around the Hamilton Manor apartment complex setting fires in the dumpsters at night. If I had my special assignment team up and running, I could just take five officers, sit them down there, and wait for this person to set the next fire and catch them in the act.” He continued, “But, again, without manpower, we have to use overtime, and we have to hold people over, and we have to take them off other assignments in order to figure out what’s going on.”

HCPD and city responses

Over the last year or two, according to Nemser, the HCPD has had to adjust their hiring standards to address the shortage. Successful officer applicants were required to score 70% or above on each section of the National Police Officer Selection Test (Standard & Associates, Inc.). Officer applicants now need just a 70% average on the whole test. Physical agility requirements have also been relaxed. And if an officer makes a lateral transfer, they no longer need to pass either the written or agility tests, Nemser said.

To increase financial incentives, the HCPD is applying for a recruitment and retention grant offered by the Governor’s Office of Crime Control & Prevention for Maryland. Nemser suggested that these funds could be used to supplement signing bonuses or for services such as uniform dry cleaning.

The city has recently taken considerable steps towards improving financial incentives for HCPD officers, according to Nemser. The fiscal year 2020 budget includes a 10% raise for sworn officers and increases the signing bonus for lateral transfers from $2,500 to $5,000. And any city employee who successfully recruits a police officer to the force receives $1,000.

According to Rollow, the FY 2020 budget also provides a 2% cost-of-living adjustment (or COLA), and increases the take-home vehicle range and city residency pay for officers. Rollow also said that, following a compensation study, the city has increased the number of salary steps, made policy changes to allow for greater salary increases upon promotion and adjusted HCPD pay scales.

Nemser noted that the city is continuing to look at other ways to improve officer retention and is aware of the need to make sure that officer salaries remain competitive.

Nemser underscored that Chief Amal Awad and Deputy Chief Scott Dunklee were both very supportive of officers: “They did a lot of the legwork to get us that raise because they knew it was important. They knew it had to happen for us to keep our good officers and continue building the ranks.”

“I do want to stress that the city has made great strides in the last six months,” said Nemser. He added that the force has just hired two officers, who are currently in training, and has three or four more applicants who are close to being hired. “It’s our job now to make sure we keep our good officers and keep building the momentum of hiring new people.”

Given that overall crime in Hyattsville — after a long downward trend — has been on the increase in 2019, such a momentum swing would come none too soon.

In an Oct. 2 email, Rollow relayed a statement from the HCPD about how the force would respond to the additional shortage of on-leave officers. He wrote, “Hyattsville police officers are extremely dedicated to the well-being of all our residents and visitors. While the involved officers are on administrative leave, some of our detectives will assist with patrol duties, while other officers have volunteered to work additional shifts on overtime. Additionally, our department has mutual aid agreements with nearby police departments, which we will rely upon if necessary. All shifts will meet appropriate staffing guidelines.”