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Cities challenged in finding police recruits

Lack of interest, better-paying jobs keep departments short

The two largest municipal police departments in the Mahoning Valley are having trouble attracting and maintaining police officers.

Youngstown Police Department is looking to add at least 25 officers this year, and Warren wants to get back to its authorized strength of 70 officers. Warren now is 10 officers short of that goal.

These departments are facing the same problems that departments across the state and nation are having in replacing officers who are retiring, moving to higher-paying positions in other departments and those leaving the profession entirely.

YOUNGSTOWN’S DILEMMA

Youngstown Police Department Lt. Brian Butler said the city has the lowest staffing levels in recorded history.

The number of patrol officers in the department is in the high 80s, Butler said.

“Police Chief (Carl) Davis would like to hire 25 new officers this year,” Butler said. “We’ve hired five so far. Adding the 25 new officers would not fully staff the department. It will keep our head above water. It will stop the bleeding.”

To achieve that goal, Youngstown police used $25,000 of its American Rescue Plan funds to advertise for new police officers.

“We normally spend no more than $2,000 per year for advertising,” Butler noted.

But the department received 36 people who applied to take the police test.

“It has been extremely challenging,” Butler said. “To make sure we have enough officers available for shifts, we have been mandating overtime and have done away with some special units.”

Butler emphasized that recruitment of police officers is a problem facing many departments across Ohio and the country.

A 22-year veteran of the YPD, Butler said area police academies have had spaces available to accommodate candidates wanting to the enter the programs.

“We used to have to beg to get people we wanted into the programs,” Butler said. “They had waiting lists.”

Now, Butler said, the local programs are not full.

“People are not interested in becoming police officers,” he said.

Butler noted there has not been one particular reason why the department has seen a drop in the number of officers.

“We have had some retirements,” he said. “We also have had officers leave for departments that pay more than what Youngstown pays, while others have left the profession entirely. I’ve seen people leave to become cable installers, to do construction work and become truck drivers.”

Butler said some officers leave because they do not believe there is as much public support for police as there once was.

Youngstown recently increased the entry-level pay for officers from $16.49 per hour to $20 per hour. Butler said the pay, with overtime, will increase to about $30 per hour.

Butler said the city has over the last five years increasingly worked to recruit “home-grown officers,” who have little to no previous training.

“We will take an applicant that looks good and pay for their academy training, if they agree to work for the department for a minimum of three years,” he said. “We’ve had some luck in doing this. However, this has only been moderately successful. We’ve had some officers stay for the minimum time and then leave for other higher-paying departments. We’ve had some people leave before they’ve completed the three years, then we have to find ways to get the school funding back.”

WARREN’S SITUATION

Warren Safety Service Director Eddie Colbert last week told city council members that the city recently gave a civil service test for new police officers and only had one of 10 people who took the test apply for a city police job.

“We have been looking at different ways to recruit candidates,” Colbert said.

The city recently sought to recruit applicants by stating it would reimburse Ohio Peace Officer Training Commission costs for recruits who are hired onto the department and stay with it for a predetermined number of years.

“It did not work,” Colbert said.

There also has been some discussion about paying the peace officer training costs up front, again with the caveat that recruits stay with the department for a certain number of years.

Councilwoman Helen Rucker, D-at Large, questioned whether the city has considered looking at hiring provisional officers. Provisional officers are those who have interest in becoming police officers, but do not have the training. They are hired provisionally, and the city pays for the required training.

“We’ve successfully done it in the past,” Rucker said.

Colbert said the city is considering every avenue to find qualified officers to join.

Warren Auditor Vince Flask said the city has the funds available to hire new officers once it is able to recruit candidates successfully.

City voters approved a 0.5 percent income tax increase in 2016. The funds from the increase are to ensure the city’s police and fire departments can be fully staffed, and that the city will have $500,000 per year to pay for paving and repair of city streets that are not provided by state or federal funds.

“That money is available,” Flask said.

Entry-level police officers in Warren earn $17.04 per hour.

OUTSIDE THE BOX

One of the area’s smaller departments also has had some problems in recruiting officers, but has kept most of them after they joined the force.

Austintown Police Department is fully staffed with 40 officers, but has had to get creative to recruit new officers when vacancies are available, according to Lt. Tom Collins.

“For the last eight to 10 officers we hired, we recruited them while they were still in the police academy,” Collins said. “We offer them conditional employment based on them completing their academy training and meeting all the requirements for being hired onto the department.”

Collins said Austintown has been taking this approach for the past three years.

“We are doing this because it is a competitive environment out here,” he said. “We have had to think outside of the box.”

Austintown has a starting salary of about $22 per hour.

Traditionally, once an officer joins the Austintown police department, he or she stays for their career, Collins added.

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