December 4, 2021

Officers needed

Police agencies struggle to fill ranks, cover shifts

Shenandoah Briere/staff reporter

Cortland County sheriff’s officer Debi Barber leaves her vehicle, after getting off her shift as a school resource officer, and heads toward the sheriff’s department to clock out for the day. The sheriff’s department has had difficulties filling positions and is down five officers. However, the issue is a nationwide problem, according to Sheriff Mark Helms.

The Cortland County Sheriff’s Office could be down six officers by the end of the summer and is also down eight corrections officers.

Recruiting is happening, but fewer people are applying and fewer make it through the hiring process.

The result is more overtime pay and some officers working double shifts.

“It’s a nationwide problem,” Sheriff Mark Helms said Tuesday.

Nearly 66% of about 400 police departments surveyed by the Police Executive Research Forum said their number of applicants had decreased.

The sheriff department has budgeted for 41 officers, including the sheriff and undersheriff and 51 corrections officers. However, the department now has 36 officers, 35 if another officer retires at the end of summer, and 43 corrections officers.

“We’re spread out so that we’ll have a couple people each year that can retire,” Helms said. “In the meantime, we have to start looking to fill those positions.”

However, the process is a long one. Officers must pass a physical agility test and civil service exam before they get on the hiring list. A person hired must then go through about six months of police academy training and three months of field training.

“It’s not a quick thing,” Helms said.

On top of that, fewer people are applying, said Cortland Deputy Police Chief Paul Sandy, whose department is down only one officer, but has had problems getting applicants.

“I’ve been involved with the hiring process for about 17 years, the list has definitely gotten shorter,” he said.

The decrease could be for a number of reasons, Helms and Sandy said.

“National attention over law enforcement has not been kind to our recruitment process,” Sandy said. “Every incident that comes across puts the police under a microscope.”

The job requires people to be available at all hours, any day of the year, Helms said. Sometimes officers work holidays and birthdays, and they don’t have set days off.

Then there’s the pay and benefits.

“Really there isn’t the draw there that used to be,” Helms said. “When I was a kid and my father was working here and when I started, the pays weren’t all that high, but you had good benefits, you had retirement that a lot of the other professions didn’t have.”

That’s changed.

“If you aren’t really into the profession and really want to do it, I don’t really have a lot I can offer,” Helms said.

He said things must change to draw applicants: pay, benefits — something.

To make it harder, the sheriff’s department will hire only officers who live in the county, Sandy said, diminishing the applicant pool further.

Helms said that even though he’s down officers he’s still scheduling the standard three officers on patrol on weekdays and four on weekend — but it means more overtime.

“I have to have the officers out there for the public,” he said.

Some of the overtime will be offset by unpaid regular salary for the vacant positions, Undersheriff Budd Rigg said.

Officers may work double shifts, but no more than that, Helms said.

As for recruitment, the department is trying something new this year — an ad to remind people to sign up by Aug. 31 to take the civil service exam Sept. 14.

“We never really had to do that before,” Helms said.