RICHMOND — Last March, voters here narrowly approved an upgrade to their small, all-part-time police department: One of its officers would be bumped up to full time.
But within about two months, that officer had left for a job with another department, according to William Daniels, the chairman of the Richmond Board of Selectmen.
The full-time position has been vacant ever since, and the department also has two part-time vacancies, Daniels said, leaving just two part-time officers.
The short staffing has led to less police coverage in Richmond, according to town officials, and came up during a recent town forum on the possibility of replacing the town’s police department with contracted coverage from the Cheshire County Sheriff’s Office. Voters are expected to decide that question in March.
Though an extreme example, Richmond is far from alone. Police departments around the country are struggling with workforce shortages, and the Monadnock Region has not been spared.
The Sentinel recently spoke to officials in 23 Monadnock Region communities. Eight police departments, including Richmond, had at least one officer position open.
At the Keene Police Department, the region’s largest, three of the 44 officer positions were vacant. Marlow and Nelson, tiny departments with just a few part-time positions apiece, each had an opening. Antrim created a sixth full-time position in the fall, but hasn’t been able to fill it. Chesterfield and Rindge each had a full-time opening. Three of Hinsdale’s 10 full-time spots were vacant, one having just opened up after a retirement.
Meanwhile, police chiefs at several fully staffed departments said they’d recently dealt with long vacancies or frequent turnover.
“It seems like as soon as we are up to full staff, we end up losing somebody, and it’s been that way for probably close to five years now,” Peterborough Police Chief Scott Guinard said.
‘A numbers game’
From Antrim to Seattle to the FBI, law-enforcement agencies are grappling with a shrinking pool of applicants.
In October, the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based organization, surveyed more than 400 police departments of various sizes in the U.S. and Canada. Sixty-three percent had seen a decrease in applicants over the past five years, and more than half of those agencies said the decrease was significant.
That’s a problem, particularly because so few applicants make it through the rigorous hiring process.
In 2018, according to a recent recruitment analysis, Keene police invited 457 people to take part in one of the department’s hiring processes. Eighty showed up. Forty-seven passed the physical fitness test. Twenty-eight passed the oral-board interview. Nine made it through a background check. Seven took jobs.
“It really is a numbers game,” said Keene police Capt. Todd B. Lawrence, who prepared the analysis.
Londonderry Capt. Patrick Cheetham, the immediate past president of the N.H. Police Association, attributed the declining application numbers to a mix of factors.
The good economy has made more jobs available in the private sector, which often have better pay and hours than police work, Cheetham said. Younger applicants, he has noticed, are often more concerned about work/life balance. And “feelings of anti-police sentiment around the country” may be driving some people away from the profession, he said.
Hiring — and holding on to — police officers is especially difficult for smaller departments, which typically offer lower pay and fewer opportunities for advancement, according to multiple chiefs in the region.
“There’s so much turnover,” Chief Patrick Connors of Charlestown said. “We’re a small town, and we can’t compete with some of the bigger towns for pay.”
Charlestown has lost people to Walpole, Claremont and Hanover, Connors said. At the moment, though, he has a full complement of six full-time officers — a situation he calls “extremely fortunate.”
While the promise of higher pay draws some officers away from small towns, Connors said, other young officers leave to advance their careers and pick up new skills. Larger departments have detective bureaus, SWAT teams, canine units and motorcycle patrols. “You’re not gonna get those same opportunities in a Charlestown, a Walpole or an Alstead,” he said.
And Connors doesn’t blame them. “We never want to put a ceiling over a young officer,” he said.
That competitive hiring market was on the mind of Troy Police Chief David Ellis Jr. when one of the town’s three full-time officers retired last year.
Rather than search for a replacement, Ellis decided to eliminate the position. It wasn’t worth the time and expense of trying to hire someone, he said recently, with so many larger, better-paying agencies also looking for recruits.
“Our pay here for full-time is not anywhere comparable to theirs,” he said.
‘It’s hard on the other guys’
The police chiefs interviewed for this story stressed that they don’t cut back on their core duties when they have vacancies. Officers still respond to car crashes, investigate assaults and cover patrol shifts.
But, some chiefs said, understaffing takes its toll in other ways. Officers carry higher caseloads and work overtime, increasing the risk of burnout. They have less time for things like traffic enforcement, particularly when some calls yield hours of paperwork.
“It’s hard on the other guys, because we have to fill all those hours and still provide the level of service that we do, with less officers,” Antrim Police Chief Scott Lester said. “We don’t want the town to suffer because we’re down a position.”
But he said those extra shifts burden his remaining officers. “Their caseload gets more and more heavy, and there’s no relief until that new person comes on.”
And even hiring someone doesn’t immediately lift that burden.
Hiring a police officer is a drawn-out process, involving written and physical tests, an oral-board interview, a background investigation, a polygraph and medical and psychological evaluations, according to area police officials.
Then, if a hire is new to law enforcement, he or she will soon spend 16 weeks at the state police academy and additional months in field training with the department. It could be a year before a rookie officer is out on the road alone, two local chiefs said.
In mid-January, on top of three vacancies, Keene police had three officers at the academy and two more in other stages of training, according to Lawrence, the Keene police captain. “There’s eight people that we don’t have at our disposal to be out on the street, taking calls for service.”
Last year, Keene officials took several steps aimed at addressing recruitment problems. They announced a package of hiring incentives, including relocation assistance and structured pay raises in the first year. The department has also been advertising positions on social media and produced an action-packed promotional video touting the opportunities available to Keene officers.
Lawrence said it’s too early to judge the effectiveness of the hiring incentives and wants to keep them in place for at least another year.
Swanzey — which is accepting job applications in anticipation of an upcoming retirement — advertises a similar hiring incentive program.
Some local police chiefs said professional-development opportunities can encourage officers to stick around.
Officers in Troy are obtaining ice-rescue certifications, and Ellis, the chief there, said he’s already bought ice-rescue gear. Peterborough has a master patrol position that comes with a raise, giving patrol officers something to work toward. The Hinsdale Police Department offers financial incentives to officers who obtain certifications in areas like field training, firearms instruction and forensics, Chief Todd Faulkner said.
Greenfield Police Chief Brian Giammarino said he’s been “blessed” with relatively low turnover. In part, he chalks that up to an advantage small towns have over cities. Though the pay’s not the highest, Greenfield officers enjoy good rapport with the community, he said. “Guys tend to get here and stay here.”
Still, Giammarino — who oversees a full staff after an October hire that ended a seven-month vacancy — noted the broader challenges.
“It’s hard to find people that want to be cops,” he said. “If the economy’s good, no one really wants to be a police officer.”