From Staffing to Communications, Challenges are Many
Many small agencies have big problems when it comes to continuity with personnel.
The reason is money, or a lack thereof.
“We have everything every other agency has, but it boils down to five words: Can I pay my bills?” Dawson Springs Brook Dixon said. “It’s a struggle I have all the time – figuring out how I can get these guys more money.”
Dixon said when he hires a new officer, he may get a year to 18 months of service before he or she moves on.
Eventually, even the most patient police officer is going to head to greener pastures, and there is very little small-town police chiefs and sheriffs can do about it.
“I have (an officer) who has been here for two and a half years, and I made him a sergeant a little less than a year ago,” Hickman Police Chief Tony Grogan said. “That was to simply keep him; he’s a good officer, so it was for retention purposes.”
Many small agencies are in the squeeze of a limited budget with little hope for an increased tax base as many of the towns and counties they serve are off the beaten path. That fact makes it nearly impossible to compete with larger agencies that can shell out more money for certified officers.
“Once you find someone and send them through the (academy), it takes a while before they’re on the street,” Grogan said. “When they come out of the academy, the training has improved so much the officer is now attractive to everybody, including larger departments. That’s what we’re dealing with.”
Grogan said after about six months on the job, many officers move on to larger departments for better pay, which leaves the smaller agency in a bind.
“We need that sustainability and retention,” Grogan said. “Without it, we’re dying.”
Another problem is the quality of the applicant pool.
“I’ve got a whole drawer full of people wanting to go to the academy, but I don’t have anyone who is qualified,” Dixon said. “My new guy lives in Island, Ky. He’s going to drive 50 minutes each day to come to work. His wife works in Owensboro and his daughter is in Owensboro, so he can’t move. If he’s willing to make the drive, I’m going to give him the shot.”
Lack of retention and recruitment also makes it tough to keep morale high, Dixon added.
“The officers we have are like, ‘Why can’t I have Saturdays off?’ or ‘Why can’t I do this?’” he said. “They say, ‘I’ve been here two years, so I’m going to go somewhere bigger so I can have some Saturdays off.”
Being short-staffed for long periods of time means small agencies often shell out hefty sums of overtime dollars.
“Our overtime hours are high,” Rockcastle County Sheriff Mike Peters said. “It’s not uncommon for our deputies to have 20 or 30 hours of overtime during a pay period.”
Peters said the fiscal court has admonished him regarding overtime hours, but no resolution is in sight.
“Operating on what fees we take in and what forfeiture we eventually can get, it’s just not enough,” Peters said.
Grogan said for many smaller agencies, the issue of retention and budget shortfalls go hand-in-hand.
“They won’t stay here because we don’t have the resources – money, equipment, future we can offer in terms of betterment,” Grogan said. “The package we can offer looks good for the first year or so, but then things change. An officer is a different person, and they want more, so they move one.”
Some sheriff’s offices are utilizing volunteer special deputies to augment low staffing, Peters said.
“We’ve really struggled with retaining certified deputies,” Peters said. “We use special deputies; I have five. It’s a Catch-22 situation. I have one that is out with one of our certified deputies right now, and I have one who volunteers.”
In 2015, Peters’ agency was given a bloodhound for tracking, and a special deputy takes care of the dog, and attends the required training, which he pays for out-of-pocket.
“I can call them if we have something major going on,” Peters said, adding that special deputies are always out in the field with a sworn deputy.
The “Catch-22” part of it comes in the form of liability, the sheriff said.
“Not having the training or the time to train is a liability,” he said. “However, having someone you can call on who is not going to cost you anything other than providing them a vehicle and gas helps a great deal.”
Much of what special deputies do in Rockcastle County is crowd control for parades and special events, and traffic control for funeral escorts.
Lewis County Sheriff Johnny Biven has four special deputies and uses them for non-law enforcement events.
“They do special details like events and parades, and they serve some papers for us,” Bivens said.
Can You Hear Me Now?
While retention is problematic in some areas, in Lewis County, Bivens said one of his biggest headaches is inadequate communication.
“It’s horrible,” he said, bluntly. “We have 483 square miles, and it’s not flat land. We have one tower in this county. When you get on the southern end of the county, radio traffic is nonexistent.”
Bivens said his deputies have cell phones, and the cruisers are equipped with cell-phone boosters, and more often than not, deputies rely more on phones than they do their radios.
“The fiscal court has been doing some studies, and I think it would take a minimum of three tower sites to get the proper communications we need,” Bivens said. “I know the fiscal court has applied for grant funding. It’s been an issue here for years; not only us but for all first responders – fire and EMS, too.”
Peters said his county has come a long way in improving communication.
“We’ve still got a few dead spots, but it’s a lot better than it used to be,” Peters said. “It’s about 90 percent covered. There are a few hollers where it can be a nuisance.”
Much of the communication issue is out of the hands of local law enforcement agencies, as they have to rely on the fiscal court to secure funding for more repeater towers, Bivens said.
“It’s bad when a cell phone works better than our radios,” he said.
Despite shortcomings in staff and communication, small agencies have to do the job of policing, and Dixon said that is the name of the game.
“Our goal is to protect the residents of this community and make them safe here,” he said. “That is what it is all about.”