(Updated 7:10 p.m.) The Arlington County Police Department is pouring more time and people into recruiting officers in an effort to outpace attrition.
For the past four years the number of “functional staff” at ACPD has been in decline. That includes sworn officers and higher-up positions but excludes those on light duty for medical reasons as well as those in training.
This has forced the department to cut back certain services and rely on current officers to cover empty shifts. To turn the tide, ACPD has changed its pay scale to better reward officers based on their experience and is upping its focus on recruitment.
Recruitment efforts, particularly those focused on recent graduates, are starting to bear fruit, according to ACPD. Still, these changes have to counteract high departure rates, largely driven by experienced officers retiring or seeking better-paying law enforcement jobs.
“While we have been successful in hiring larger classes of recruit officers in recent years, this has not offset the number of departures due to attrition, retirements and officers seeking other opportunities,” ACPD spokeswoman Ashley Savage tells ARLnow.
ACPD is authorized to have 377 officers but its “functional staffing” currently sits at 284, slightly higher than the 275 reported earlier this year. Another 28 positions are either unfilled or filled with officers in training or on light duty.
As for those slated to join the ranks, two officers — with and without law enforcement experience — have been hired and are waiting to go to the regional police academy. (Update at 7:10 p.m.: After publication, multiple police sources said the number provided by FOIA, 30, was incorrect and the actual number was two.)
Another 37 have applied and could accept an offer once extended, according to data obtained by ARLnow following a Freedom of Information Act request.
ARLnow was billed $75 for the FOIA response.
Officers in training would replace the 24 who retired, resigned or were fired this calendar year. Still, sources within the department say nearly a half-dozen more departures are imminent, and the total could be higher by December. Departure totals for 2022 and 2021 were 53 and 50, respectively.
This year, the intensified focus on recruitment may cancel out attrition rates, but ACPD has a long road to the 377 officers it is authorized to have. Even this number falls below consultant recommendations from a 2017 report, provided to ARLnow, which said the department should have 405 officers.
An evergreen report
Six years ago, a consultant found ACPD faced staffing shortages, particularly among patrol officers who are the first to respond to calls for service. It also highlighted concerns from officers about other local and federal agencies offering better pay and career advancement opportunities.
Four years later, in 2021, ACPD would cite these same reasons when explaining its shrinking force.
At the time, the patrol section had 164 employees and ACPD had an authorized strength of 367. Today, it is authorized for 10 more, yet the report recommended add 38, for an authorized strength of 405.
Savage said she could not share the number of patrol officers today, as that is sensitive tactical information. One publicly available number comes from the 2024 budget, which has 178 budgeted patrol officer positions.
For Randall Mason, the leader of the local police union, not much has changed since the 2017 report.
“By looking at the budgets each year, and how many sworn police we’re even authorized for, that report wasn’t taken seriously at all,” he said. “This year, they froze additional positions to pay for the raises we got through arbitration. I think we’re 50 less with the frozen positions than what the 2017 report said we should be at.”
The staffing declines appear to have hit rank-and-file officers harder than those higher up the chain of command, many of whom Mason said serve necessary, but more administrative, functions.
According to ACPD, the number of lieutenants (26), captains (10) and deputy chiefs (4) has remained relatively unchanged in recent years. Meanwhile, police sources say shifts regularly do not have enough officers and corporals available.
The study recommends a minimum of 20 officers and corporals per shift but the current minimum shift staffing sits at 15, with regular requests for officers to work extra shifts, Mason said.
Mason says he applauds Arlington County Police Chief Andy Penn for not instituting mandatory overtime and trying to avoid longer shifts, both of which could result in more people leaving.
“We can’t continue to lose more people than we gain each year,” he said.
Of those leaving, retiring officers make up less than half, he said. Pointing to ACPD data showing relatively few officers with 5-15 years of experience, he said most people leaving are seeking other opportunities.
All-in on recruitment
In response to these trends, Savage tells ARLnow that the department’s recruiters have been busy.
They have sent out some 425,000 emails to college students and recent graduates, with a focus on those attending schools with diverse student bodies. Recruiters are expected to attend some 130 events by the end of this year, including those tailored to employing veterans.
Meanwhile, a marketing company is running a print and online media campaign, with plans to expand to radio and TV. Current officers are hosting webinars to tell prospective applicants about the career paths available to them or share their experiences as women or LGBTQ+ officers.
ACPD says recruits without law enforcement experience have a $68,503.50 starting salary, while those with experience can expect up to $87,789. There is also a $3,000 signing bonus.
The new salary for experienced officers reflects a change in ACPD’s payment system to better reward experienced officers, regardless where they started their career.
Mason says higher salaries would go a long way to filling Arlington’s vacancy rate, which as of October 2022, was the worst among peer jurisdictions.
“Most of our officers don’t live in the county, but why travel through another jurisdiction that has essentially the same pay to get to Arlington?” he said. “I don’t think we will ever be fully staffed if the county continues to just try to keep pace with other local jurisdictions that are fighting their own staffing crisis.”
While police staffing shortages are seen nationwide, there are jurisdictions with fully staffed departments, he said, pointing to localities in North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana. There, he said, officers earn salaries that — if adjusted for Arlington’s cost of living — would translate to $85,000-113,000 here.
A trend worrying County Board hopefuls
At an Arlington County Civic Federation forum this week, candidates for Arlington County Board acknowledged police staffing is an issue and, like Mason, cited pay as a solution.
“If we have the highest cost of living, we have to pay more to attract them here,” said Democratic candidate Maureen Coffey. “That is just how people make decisions with their personal finances.”
Fellow Democratic candidate Susan Cunningham, who said she talked with officers on a ride-along recently, echoed this approach.
“The pay element is absolutely crucial,” she said, noting the county has “made really good progress” but there are still problems with the pay scale that make it harder for experienced officers to justify staying in Arlington.
Republican candidate Juan Carlos Fierro said Arlington should try to make the county more affordable for first responders.
“I also think that the police force, the firefighters, emergency workers and even nurses, we should give them a grant to be able to live in the county if they wish,” he said. “I think that that’s one of the basic things that we can do for everyone that also takes care of us and keep us safe.”
Independent Audrey Clement emphasized that the county has frozen several law enforcement positions –despite police reporting an increase in crimes — while upping mental health staff.
“The lopsided nature of the hiring across departments indicates the county is robbing Peter to pay Paul,” she said, calling for a standardized “needs assessment” to justify every county hire.
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