It has been a constant issue when discussing the Mount Airy Police Department in recent years — vacancies that simply never seem to go away.
The 41-member police department has five openings at present, and it has had as many as eight at various times in recent years. Those vacancies strain all involved, forcing overtime work for many officers, making everyone go the extra mile so the department can meet its responsibilities in the community.
Part of the issue is pay — a beginning officer in Mount Airy makes about $29,000 a year. A new officer can get a year’s experience under his belt, then move on to larger law enforcement agencies that pay more.
Another obstacle is training. It’s not easy being a police officer — it is one of the most dangerous, most stressful jobs in America, so young recruits need to go through a comprehensive training program that adequately prepares them for life as a police officer.
Unfortunately, such programs can not only be expensive, but so time-consuming. Someone who wants to be an officer simply can’t afford to quit his or her job to take the courses, but the coursework demands almost full-time attention.
That is certainly the case with the Basic Law Enforcement Training program at Surry Community College. The program is tough; it puts students through some rigorous training in order to ensure its graduates are ready to take on the difficult role of a law enforcement officer.
Yet that very toughness, the time needed to do the classes, can disqualify those who cannot afford to quit their full-time jobs for the training.
Police Chief Dale Watson and City Manager Barbara Jones, however, may have a solution. The two this week unveiled a plan that would pay the cost of a trainee to attend the training at SCC, and pay each student a stipend that works out to about $25,000 on an annualized basis. The program would only be for would-be officers who pass all other background checks and requirements for the city prior to joining the training class. It would also entail each of them signing a contract agreeing to work for two years as a city police officer after completing the course.
This is an excellent program idea, and one we hope city commissioners will adopt. It still leaves the city police department in the driver’s seat, keeping its standards high, while paving a way for a would-be police officer to attend training and then join the force upon completion. It would also slow the vacancy rate, by obligating the officers to stay with the city for at least two years.
We hope commissioners will give strong consideration to approving the plan.
Regarding the other issue — pay — another step commissioners might consider is raising the salaries of officers, particularly those on the bottom of the pay scale.
We understand whenever one considers raises for a city employee, first thoughts are often how to spread the raises to all municipal employees.
However, we believe city officers, more than any other position (with the possible exception of city fire fighters), are underpaid for the job they do. An officer’s job is like no other. In fact, it is not a job, or even a career — it’s a lifestyle that dominates every waking minute of an officer’s life. Holidays, weekends, family time, everything else has to become secondary to doing the job.
The job takes a physical toll as well. Every time an officer stops a suspect — even for a simple speeding infraction — the blood pressure rises, adrenaline courses their their bodies, their heart rate speeds up because every single stop has the potential to turn deadly.
Thankfully, most stops are nothing more than routine, but the officers don’t know that in the beginning, and they suffer those effects repeatedly.
That says nothing about the constantly changing work shifts, the long, odd hours. A number of medical studies over the years have shown the lifestyle of a police officer has long-term consequences to their health, which is why a number of communities around the nation allow police officers to retire with full benefits earlier than many other municipal employees.
We would like to see those in uniform get a little more pay on the front end of their careers as well. We believe the proposal by Chief Watson and Jones is a solid one that would be of great benefit to the city and its officers. We’d also like to see a serious discussion of raising those pay rates — at least at the bottom of the scale — 10 to 15 percent as well.
Maybe both would lead to few, if any, regular vacancies.