AUBURN — As the Auburn Police Department saw four more officers retire in January, adding to what was already a staff shortage, Chief Shawn Butler said the department is working hard to find a creative solution.
Three patrol officers, Brandy Quigley, Andrew Hitt and Scott Spin; and Detective Bryant Bergenstock retired from APD between Jan. 3 and Jan. 25 after each serving 20 years or more with the department. Butler said municipal police officers in New York can retire with half-pay pensions after 20 years.
"They all had different (job) opportunities. It leaves us in a predicament, but I wish them the best, I understand when your time comes, your time comes," Butler said Wednesday.
Butler said the department currently has 56 of its 67 budgeted positions filled, but there are currently 54 active officers as one is on military leave in Africa and a new recruit who was severely injured in defensive tactics training at the police academy is still recovering.
One more patrol officer has indicated he will retire in March, Butler added, and a captain may also be leaving in April or May. "We're used to a couple retirements a year, not hard to handle — but when you have a sixth, or more, of your complete force gone it really causes logistical issues," he said.
The department is able to handle calls for service, Butler said, but it is struggling to provide the level of service the community has come to expect and isn't able to "proactively police" as much as desired. This includes handling traffic complaints and conducting community policing events, for example. Luckily, he added, the winter tends to be a bit slower.
"Our people are holding the line, they're doing great," Butler said, adding that he doesn't have concerns for the public's safety. "They've definitely risen to the occasion.
"We have a minimum manpower that I set, where every shift has to go out with at least five patrol officers, plus at least one supervisor. And we're going out, often times, with that minimum," Butler said. "We're jumping call to call to call. It wears on the officers. I'm trying to really keep a heartbeat, a pulse, on how they're handling it."
When fully staffed, the department's shifts go out with a sixth, seventh or eighth car that can serve as back-up to more serious calls for service, do traffic enforcement and engage with business owners and the community. Even if the department had all 67 positions filled, Butler said that's more of a comfort, not optimal, level. "It's that balance between that budget and the funding that's available."
Butler said the department is over budget for overtime due to the shortages. Since there is a saving of funding from positions not being filled, he added, "all in all, it's probably a savings — but at what cost?"
Officers also haven't been able to take off all the time they want, but he said they've been understanding.
One of the department's hindrances to filling the vacant positions are recruitment challenges.
The department has two viable candidates right now, Butler said, but they have to wait to get training at a police academy. He's hoping for an academy class this spring, but after six months of police academy and about another 14-week-long field training program, it takes about one year from hire date to have someone answering service calls on their own.
APD's hiring process begins with candidates passing the police officer civil service exam. About 130 candidates passed the exam, last given in September, Butler said, but the department has near exhausted the list of candidates available. People have either been hired, haven't responded, or have been disqualified by failing the fitness or background checks, for example. Butler said when he and Deputy Chief Roger Anthony took over in 2016, they raised the background check standards.
"We want the best candidate. We've implemented polygraphs and psychological backgrounds. We've seen a decrease in viable candidates, but we want the best of the best out here serving our public," Butler said.
Another major hurdle for APD is that other area agencies are paying more, Butler said, and the lack of competitive salaries is hurting the department in terms of recruitment and retention.
A recruitment officer's salary on day one is $39,263, Butler said, and while the department used to have a five- or six-year pay scale, now it's 10 years. As a result, it takes officers longer to make more money. A top officer's base pay is $71,484, he said.
Another challenge is if APD comes to a place where there are no candidates available to hire from the civil service list, it may look into hiring lateral officers — already trained officers from other agencies. APD's current contract, however, caps a lateral officer's starting salary at about $51,000 regardless of their prior experience. This would be a significant pay cut for an officer with, say, 10 years of experience in Syracuse, Butler said.
"Our game needs to change — how we attract people, how we retain those we have," Butler said.
The chief said he's constantly working with his staff to be creative, to find ways to hire given the contract restrictions and to "sustain the people we do have."
Butler said APD has the ear of city council and management, and some options and solutions for recruitment and retention are going to be explored at a Feb. 7 Auburn City Council meeting.
"There's got to be a breaking point, and we're on the cusp of that. With our current staffing, something's got to give — and I don't want that to be the quality of the service we provide," Butler said. "We're looking at everything. All hands are on deck with trying to find a solution. Our officer's union, city management, city council and police administration. We're all working together, which is a great feeling, we all have a common goal to find a solution — I think we're close. I don't think there's one thing that's going to fix it — there's multiple angles and multiple things we have to do."