Weekly Letter: Do We Have Enough Cops?

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If you’ve attended any of the first three budget town halls over the last week, you’ve heard some heated testimony from Anne Arundel County Police Officers. One turned his back to me and spoke directly to the audience, saying that I don’t get it. 

In that moment, I wanted to turn my back on him, but I won’t. I respect him.

The officers’ message was an urgent one. Our efforts to increase staffing levels have failed as the workload has increased.

When I took office five years ago we had just under 700 sworn officers. Four years earlier, a study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police said that our county should have 824 officers. My predecessor had tried to get there but failed. I made a commitment to get there and have also failed.

Things were looking good two years into my first term. We had some large academy classes and jumped to 765 after a year and hit 806 in the second year. But then academy classes shrank and we lost officers to retirement. We dropped to 770 the next year, then a low of 761, and we are at 766 today. We have 808 positions authorized, and are prepared to grow that number when we are able to reach it.

During those years we invested heavily and worked hard to hire and retain. We signed good contracts that raised salaries and benefits to put us among the top in the state. Today our starting salary is $62,160 plus a $20,000 signing bonus. Only three of Maryland’s 23 counties have a higher salary, but only one of those matches our bonus, and our benefits package is said to be the best in the state.

We also now guarantee take-home vehicles for all officers, including those living outside the county, added a third academy class each year to shorten the hiring process, and got very aggressive on the recruitment front. When New York City announced a police hiring freeze, we literally showed up in Times Square with an LED mobile billboard on a truck advertising our starting pay and bonus.

Our Chief often says that we have “The best damn police department anywhere,” and our recent Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) report demonstrates that we are among the best in the country.

So what’s all the fuss about? Consider this.

According to the FBI, the average police department in the United States has 2.3 officers per 1,000 residents. That would be 1,364 officers for our 593,000 residents. A look around the region tells the same story. We are incredibly lean. The quality of our service is obviously a testament to the quality of our officers.

Too few officers means a lot of overtime for the ones we employ. We have minimum staffing levels for patrol, and when nobody is available to fill a shift, that overtime is mandatory. It happens all the time, and it is exhausting our officers and disrupting their families. That makes them more inclined to look for another line of work. Overtime is also expensive for our taxpayers. 

On Monday, Chief Awad announced to her officers that patrol operations, the backbone of the agency, needs help. Sixty-two officers currently assigned to other units will be reassigned to patrol in the coming months. They may be moved from crisis intervention, criminal investigations, special operations, professional standards, property management and technology, and police and community together (PACT).

We can make officers return to patrol from the specialized jobs they have earned, but we can’t stop them from looking for work elsewhere. As committed as they may be to protecting and serving the public, they do have to look out for themselves and their families. We will lose some.

So. Yes. We need more police officers. We’ve got the best academy, the best technology, a Chief that people want to work for, and pretty close to the best compensation in the area, but it’s not getting the job done. 

I met yesterday morning with the command staff and I asked direct questions of the officer in charge of recruitment. Sometimes it’s hard to get officers to talk openly with me. They are trained to respect the chain of command and don’t want to step out of line. This officer finally said what he thought it would take to break through and fill our academy classes, even though he knew it’s not what I wanted to hear. Money. More money. Starting salary. The figure that he puts on the billboards and all over social media. 

That's what we heard last year from the Superintendent of our schools. Remember that $8,000 starting salary increase we did for teachers last year, and how Dr. Bedell credited it with cutting vacancies in half? I sure do.

That’s the kind of move counties are making in this environment, and that’s the kind of thing we’re contemplating. I will be asking for cost scenarios from the budget office and potential impacts on union contracts from personnel. I will be talking to all seven members of the County Council, because they are the county’s ultimate fiscal authority. 

Whether you revere the badge or fear it, please recognize one thing. It’s a hard time to be a cop, and they are not all perfect. They are human and their job is to protect us. All of us. And they know that. Show them grace.

If you or someone you know feels called to serve and protect, our recruiters are waiting to hear from you. Text the number 38276 and type in "JOINAAPD". They’ll be in touch.

Until next week…

Steuart Pittman
Anne Arundel County Executive