BY HEATHER WRIGHT
Consistent with a nation-wide trend, the Hyattsville Police Department (HPD) is facing a significant staffing shortage. In response, the city has expanded its recruiting efforts and increased salaries and retention bonuses.
Police staffing shortages are not new, but many are increasing in severity. A June 2021 Police Executive Research Forum nation-wide survey showed an 18% jump in resignations and a 45% increase in retirements compared to the previous year. HPD Chief Jarod J. Towers wrote in an statement emailed to the Hyattsville Life & Times, “The significant increase in the number of officers who chose to retire and move to the private sector, while simultaneously seeing a significant drop in academy applications, is causing agencies in the DMV to not only jockey for the same candidates, but recruit experienced officers from each other.”
HPD spokesperson Adrienne Augustus said in an email that, according to city records dating back to 2011, the closest HPD has come to being fully staffed was in 2014 and 2015, when staffing was at 98%. During a phone interview, Towers said that since about 2011, the HPD has been, on average, staffed at 20% below its budgeted complement of sworn officers.
Other local police departments are currently experiencing officer shortages, too. The Bowie Police Department had 58 of 67 (87%) sworn officer positions filled, while Greenbelt Police Department had 46 of its 53 (87%) positions filled as of Nov. 2.
“For the safety of the community and our officers, HPD will not be able to release the current staffing figures,” Augustus noted in an email.
Although the city would not specify how many of its 50 officer positions are filled, Towers discussed several impacts of HPD’s shortages. Three of the four HPD patrol shifts are above minimum staffing levels, while one is operating at minimum. Staffing shortages can lengthen response times, depending on the time of day and number of calls coming in.
Towers noted that shortages directly impact specialized units, like the traffic safety and community action (CAT) teams, and the criminal investigations section. To enhance community policing, the CAT is organized around having five officers — one to connect with residents and businesses of each of the city’s five wards. However, for at least the last eight years, the CAT has only had two assigned officers, and one of those officers currently serves as a school resource officer during school hours. And when patrol shifts are understaffed, officers are pulled from specialized teams.
HPD Officer Chris Salzano told the HL&T that the department has revamped its recruiting efforts and is emphasizing its new slogan, Be the change you dream of. “We want people who still believe that police can make a difference, that they still can affect change in the community and be a part of the community,” he said. ”There’s so much more to policing than just enforcing the law.”
In addition to visiting traditional police-oriented career events, recruiting officers like Salzano are going to car rallies, gyms, shopping malls and other community gathering spaces, and city events like Summer Jam, to scout potential HPD officers.
New salary increases went into effect on Sept. 24. Previously, a new HPD recruit, still in the police academy, would start at an annual salary of $47,402. Entry-level recruits will now make $60,314, a 27% increase. The starting salary range for experienced officers transferring to the HPD was increased by about 16%. According to Evergreen Solutions LLP consultant Connor Holcombe, who presented a compensation study during the Sept. 19 Hyattsville City Council meeting, pay ranges for HPD officers had been 7.5 to 10% below the local market. The study looked at compensation levels in 11 local police departments, including those of Bowie and Greenbelt.
During the council’s September meeting, City Administrator Tracey Nicholson-Douglas pointed out that it cost about $100,000 to bring new officers onboard, so the city was also focusing on officer retention. She said her goal was to move HPD pay ranges to “slightly above market.”
Towers said that the HPD is focused on recruiting minorities and women to the force. The HPD, he said, has a goal of at least 30% female HPD officers by 2030. Currently, about 17% of the force is female. Nationwide, less than 13% of full-time police officers are women.
Following events like the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., after the shooting of Michael Brown, in 2014, and the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, public confidence in the police has declined, dipping lower than 50% for the first time in 20 years, according to a December 2020 Council of Justice presentation.
“We are not machines. Under our uniforms are human beings — parents, little league coaches, troop leaders, your neighbors — who feel the shift in public sentiment,” Towers wrote in his emailed statement. “We have to have a thick skin to sign up to help people and protect the community, which is why the large majority of us took the oath to protect and serve.”
Salzano said he became a police officer, in part, because of the impressive police response to 9/11 that he witnessed, back when he was in elementary school. By participating in community outreach and recruitment efforts, he hopes to show residents that “it’s OK to become police, that we are someone to still believe in, someone to trust, someone who can help.”