By Danielle Nadler & Renss Greene
When you call 911, who shows up?
Fewer young people are signing up to protect and serve. There is a nationwide shortage of law enforcement officers, with the number of applicants down by 90 percent in some departments, according to news reports.
Working in law enforcement can be dangerous and stressful. The hours aren’t great, and the pay isn’t particularly enticing. But top law enforcement officers promise the job can be rewarding, and they’re working to spread that message to attract new talent.
While the problem is less severe here, Leesburg Police Department and Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office are experiencing higher-than-normal vacancy rates, and rolling out major recruiting efforts to stay ahead of the problem.
The Sheriff’s Office has 48 unfilled deputy positions; Leesburg Police has 18. The hiring deficit is much worse at the state level. A Richmond Times-Dispatch article last week stated that 103 sworn employees and 76 civilian employees have left the Virginia State Police so far this year, leaving 116 vacancies in the field.
The growing tension between the police and the communities they serve, especially at the national level, is one factor law enforcement leaders say is hurting their recruiting efforts.
“There’s a lot of tension in this profession, whether it’s from an officer safety perspective or from a citizen perspective,” said Major Vanessa Grigsby, who is serving as Leesburg’s interim police chief. “Now, as people see these videos of officer-involved shootings. … It’s tough for a young person to say, OK, I want to sign up for that.”
For the Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Mike Chapman said the challenge is marketing.
“If you see what’s happening kind of across the board in law enforcement, especially the way law enforcement is being looked at right now, it’s making it even more difficult to attract and retain good people,” Chapman said.
In response, his department is aggressively marketing itself across the Washington, DC, metro area.
“From the courts, to corrections, to patrol detectives, motors, crime scene folks—you name it—we pretty much have what every major police department in the nation has,” Chapman said.
The department has been taking steps to make itself a more attractive place to work, including getting funding from the county to increase the retirement multiplier, boosting retirement pay based on years served.
Increasing that multiplier means some longtime department employees can better afford to retire, so the Sheriff’s Office anticipates more people leaving in the short-term. But it also makes Loudoun a more appealing place to work for new hires.
But there’s more work to do. This year, the Sheriff’s Office will press to add periodic step increases to the pay scale, a change aimed at rewarding experienced deputies. Currently, without a promotion or taking time to earn a new certification, deputies earn only minimal annual pay increases.
“In other words, you get your 2 percent, 21/2 percent, 3-percent annual raise, so basically where you come on at is pretty much where it’s going to stay,” Chapman said. That means an officer who’s been in the same position for years could leave the department looking for better pay.
There are several factors playing into Leesburg Police’s higher-than-normal vacancy rate, Grisby said. The department has seen an uptick in retirements, as well as officers leaving for other local public safety agencies or federal agencies.
But the real difficulty, she says, is the time and the money it takes to hire and train a new officer when one leaves. She did not have an estimate for what it costs to train new hires, but she said it takes nine months. “Six months of academy and three months of in-field training—it’s a long process,” she said. “That’s what’s tough and what departments around the nation face.”
While new hires undergo training, it will mean fewer officers on duty. Leesburg Police has decreased the number of officers on the clock at any given time from 16 to 14, and had to increase overtime hours for its sworn employees.
But Grigsby is hopeful the department will fill most of its vacancies by next year. It recently received 47 applications. It will take some time to test the applicants and train any new hires, but she’s pleased by the applicant pool.
Leesburg Police’s pay is one of the best among police employment wages in Virginia, with a starting salary of $53,233. Loudoun Sheriff’s Office deputies start between $41,885 and $56,654, depending on education and experience. The department also offers pay incentive for a second language and higher education. The salary for first-year State Police troopers is $36,207.
Sheriff Chapman also says his department is on its way to filling its vacancies, with 35 applications awaiting processing.
“I think when you have people that really want to be a part of solving the problem out there, and addressing some or these trust issues, that’s what we’re looking for,” he said.
But the problem of attracting talent could be a long-term one, if efforts to improve the image of public safety officers are not made now. Grigsby said part of a recruiting strategy should include emphasizing community policing. That means giving young people as many positive interactions with public safety officers as possible, she added.
Starting in elementary school, Loudoun students get to know officers through the D.A.R.E. program. In the local middle and high schools, students regularly see either Sheriff’s Office deputies or Leesburg Police officers on their campuses working as school resource officers. Leesburg Police also puts on a Law Enforcement Explorers program, meant to give young people a glimpse of a career in policing. Purcellville Police Department, which has two sworn officer vacancies, for years has worked with students in its afterschool Homework Club. And Chapman said his department actively reaches out to minority communities.
“That’s where it starts,” Grigsby said. “All those community activities to connect with young people hopefully translates to a positive impression and overtime our numbers will get better. It just takes time.”
For her, it’s been the only career she’s wanted since she was a young girl. “Working in law enforcement has been the dream job for me,” she said. “Helping people through difficult times or being the voice for victims is very rewarding.”