A negative public image, an up economy and benefit cuts often hinder recruitment
A lack of trust due to high-profile police-involved shootings in the U.S. in recent years, a prosperous economy and the dismantling of public pensions are creating a law enforcement shortage across the country including in small and large cities in Texas.
By Allen Jones, TEXPERS Communications Manager
Big cities such as Houston and Dallas as well as smaller communities such as Irving, DeSoto, and Richardson report operating understaffed law enforcement agencies. According to an NBC news affiliate in Dallas/Fort Worth, the low number of qualified applicants is making police work difficult, especially among smaller law enforcement agencies.
At the Irving Police Department, officers in the narcotics and vice divisions were reassigned and the department's full-time tactical team now works part-time to help out with a staffing shortage, according to the NBC DFW Channel 5 news report. And as the state worries about public school shootings, in May, DeSoto Police Department officials were considering pulling several school resource officers to utilize them in areas they may be more useful.
Some of the largest staff shortages are in Texas' large metropolitan areas. In Houston, Police Chief Art Acevedo says his department is short as many as 2,000 officers. The department has 5,170 officers serving roughly 2.4 million people, according to a recent CNBC report. To maintain that staffing level, 350 new hires a year is needed due to staff turnover alone.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and members of the city council recently signed a commitment to add 500 officers to the Houston Police Department during the next five years. Even so, the number is way below what is needed. During a press conference in January, Acevedo highlighted data regarding crime statistics and the staffing shortage.
He said the public should understand there is a staffing shortage and budget issues. A solution, he says, is up to elected officials and to constituents.
“We've changed the way we deploy people, we've changed the way we investigate violent crime… but at the end of the day when you're 1,500 to 2,000 officers short, you can only squeeze so much from a lemon,” Acevedo says in the CNBC report.
An improving economy is often to blame for dismal police recruitment, says Megan Howard, a captain in the Houston Police Department's recruitment division. It is police recruitment's “biggest competitor,” she says.
Anytime wages improve and the job market is plentiful, Howard says policing suffers. Law enforcement officers work long hours and sometimes find themselves in dangerous situations. Low wages don't make recruitment any easier. If there are higher-paying jobs with less time-commitment, people will take them, Howard says. And high profile instances of police brutality and shootings are tarnishing the image of law enforcement.
One thing Houston's police department does have going for it is an officer's access to retirement security. Although the promise of a portion of a continuing salary during retirement often makes for a great incentive to get into policing, Howard says it isn't always enough to entice people to enter police academies and train for the job.
A large number of retiring police officers is partly behind the agency's job turn-over rate. The police department didn't have data indicating if any police are leaving due to pension reforms made during the last legislative session. Howard did say, however, she believes that anytime local and state officials trim back retirement benefits, it can make recruitment harder.
The city has three public pension funds for police, firefighters, and municipal employees. During the last legislative session, a pension reform bill was approved. The bill resulted in employees contributing more to their funds and the acceptance of a $1.8 billion in benefit cuts. In exchange, the city is taking out a voter-approved bond to help resolve underfunding issues.
The city of Dallas is also experiencing a shortage of police officers. Along with Houston, Dallas recently made headlines for pension reform efforts that addressed underfunding issues. Amidst the pension reform in Dallas, officers began leaving the city to work in nearby municipalities.
Nationwide, law enforcement agencies employ roughly 807,000 officers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A new research brief from the Center for State and Local Government Excellence suggests that cuts to pension benefits have reduced the ability of public sector employers to compete with private sector employers for workers.
Changes in pension benefits are generally aimed at new hires. Modifications often include the reduction of the percent used to calculate a public employee's benefit amount, extending the normal retirement age, reducing cost-of-living adjustments, and increasing the amount employees contribute to their retirement plans.
“The analysis highlights the need for states and localities to consider how pension benefit reductions may impact public worker recruitment and retentions, and that more work should be done to further examine the workforce impacts on pension cuts,” according to a news release issued by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence, a nonprofit research organization.
The organization points to Bureau of Labor Statistics data regarding public-sector job openings to illustrate exactly how public-sector job openings, including policing, have increased during the last nine years. Since 2010, there has been a 71 percent increase in public-sector job openings.
To see exactly how changes to retirement plans for police impact employee recruitment and retention, look to the Town of Palm Beach, Florida. The town lowered defined-benefit pensions and offered to replace the earned-benefits pension plan with a less-secure individual 401(k)-like define contribution retirement plan, according to a case study published by the National Institute on Retirement Security.
The changes resulted in the exit of a large number of public safety employees to neighboring communities that continued to offer more secure defined-benefit retirement plans. The nonprofit research organization also found that the change in benefit plans in Palm Beach increased costs in human resource areas and required the public safety departments to work with skeleton crews. In 2016, the town council voted to abandon the defined-contribution plan and to improve the defined-benefit plan.
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Allen Jones is the communications manager for the Texas Association of Public Employee Retirement Systems. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 713-622-8018.