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Ongoing Battles for Local Law Enforcement: Staffing Difficulties Plague Police in Area
In interviews with exploreClarion.com, the top issue cited by commanding officers of local law enforcement agencies seemed to be difficulties with hiring and retaining a full complement of officers.
According to Captain Bernard Petrovsky of the Pennsylvania State Police Troop C – which includes the barracks at Clarion, Clearfield, Ridgway, Marienville, DuBois, Punxsutawney, and Kane – staffing is a constant and ongoing issue, even at the state level.
“Manpower is always our number one concern,” said Captain Petrovsky.
“I’ve been in a command position for six years, and manpower is always our most pressing need. Troop C has seven stations, and some of them are very small with as few as 15 people on staff. Being a 24/7 agency, when manpower goes down, it’s a big deal. Larger stations can absorb drops in staff, but we can’t, and it’s something I can’t control.”
The same problem plagues smaller municipal departments, as well, but not only in terms of retirements, injuries, and leaves of absence.
“It’s always a challenge when it comes to staffing,” explained Chief William Peck IV of the Clarion Borough Police Department.
“There’s only so much our municipality receives through taxes. It’s a challenge to make a fair budget and staff it properly.”
While Clarion Borough Police Department has been lucky in recent years, with the highest level of staffing in a decade, other departments aren’t doing as well, according to Chief Peck.
“Compared to Clarion and Franklin, our tax base is smaller, so funding is an issue,” said Chief Joab Orr, of the Knox Borough Police Department. “Our budget isn’t as big as other departments, and manpower is a big issue.”
According to Chief Orr, having such a small department, with just two full-time officers in Knox, makes things more complex as the officers have to be able to “wear different caps.”
“In larger departments, you have detectives and people with different roles within the department. Here, we have to wear the cap of detective, patrolman, parking authority, administration….we all have to wear all of those caps.”
The staffing issues aren’t just about funding, although that is one aspect of it. Some of the staffing issues also seem to arise from a change in the culture and attitude toward law enforcement.
“I think, with police, in general, you just do not see as many people who want to get in this career field. I don’t think there are as many people entering the field as there was ten or fifteen years ago,” Chief Orr noted.
Chief Vince Markle, of the Brookville Borough Police Department, echoed those sentiments.
“The first challenge we’re having right now is that people just aren’t going into law enforcement,” stated Chief Markle.
“Surrounding departments have put announcements out that they’re hiring officers, and they get one or two applications whereas twenty years ago you’d have 50 to 75 applicants for one job. I don’t know if it’s what they’re seeing on TV, the bad reputation that police are getting, I don’t know what it is, but the younger generation just aren’t interested in law enforcement.”
The same issue seems to hold true throughout the area.
“The numbers have definitely dropped,” noted Chief Robert Wenner, of the Oil City Police Department.
“After 9/11 everybody wanted to be a hero, but the number of applicants has dropped since then. We’ve had very good applicants, though, and I’ll always do more with less if they’re better quality, so I’ll take them.”
Chief Kevin Anundson, of the City of Franklin Police Department, said that “being short-handed can actually be worse than being short on equipment.”
“We have never been as shorthanded as we were last year. We were short four officers. I had shifts I had a lot of trouble covering, and I had to fill shifts with people on overtime. We were still getting the same number of calls, but the officers were all taking on extra overtime, and they were getting burned out,” continued Chief Anundson.
While the Franklin Police Department still has one position to fill, they are currently back up to a solid staff of 16 full-time officers. With the help of social media getting word out about openings, they’re beginning to see applicant numbers pick back up after the same kind of distinct decrease applications other departments had dealt with, according to Anundson.
“Back when the first time I tested here in ’95, the same year I tested and was hired at Sugarcreek, we had, I think, about 65 people that tested, and I’ve seen it down as low as three people in 2000.”
Issues with hiring and maintaining staff aren’t isolated to the municipal and state police, either. County sheriff’s departments in our region also struggle with the same issues.
“There was a time we got applications constantly, but lately we’ve had very few,”
According to Jefferson County Sheriff Carl Gotwald, Sr., there was a time when the department received applications constantly; however, lately, they have had very few.
“We don’t see a lot of turnover. We do see some, but it’s usually the younger guys who just got out of the academy, then they get offered a job someplace and move on, usually for more money,” Sheriff Gotwald explained.
Deputies choosing to move on to other positions with higher pay rates is a regular occurrence for all of the sheriff departments in our area.
Venango County Sheriff Eric Foy said that his department’s turnover rate is somewhat horrendous.
“We’ve had a good run for a while now and kept people, but the pay isn’t the best. Actually, it’s probably the lowest around. We have to go to the academy for five and a half months and carry the same equipment as other agencies, but the pay isn’t as good,” Sheriff Foy explained.
Sheriff Rex Munsee of the Clarion County Sheriff’s Department echoed Sheriff Foy’s opinion on the pay.
“The salary we pay is below what it should be to attract and maintain people,” said Sheriff Munsee.
“Starting at $12.01 per hour, I’m lucky to get anyone to work for that. It’s just too little. You figure, you’ve put the uniform on and you become a target, for $12.01 per hour. You could go work at a trailer factory for more than that. People are always looking for a better paying job, and I can’t blame them.”
According to Sheriff Munsee, with the lower pay rate, the sheriff’s department often hires people who are seeking experience.
“We have a tendency to get people straight out of the municipal academy with no experience. We hire people with no experience and get them trained, then six months to a year later, we lose them to a better-paying department that will hire them now because they have experience.”
Though the constant turnover can be difficult for sheriff’s departments, Sheriff Munsee noted it simply comes with the territory.
“I don’t mind doing that, though. I’ve had some tremendous deputies that have gone on to the state police or municipalities. We just get them on the right foot, so they see all of the possible pitfalls, and they leave on good terms. I’m glad I can help them out.”
While some departments have managed to fight through high turnover rates, dips in funding that have left them understaffed at times, the concern continues as, around the state, many municipal departments have closed up shop.
According to a U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies, while Pennsylvania had over 11,000 law enforcement agencies in 2008, that number dropped down to under 1,000 by 2014, with many departments too small to provide 24/7 coverage or a full range of services.
Those closures often put additional strain on state police agencies that have additional townships and municipalities added to its coverage area.
“When a local department calls and says they’re going belly up, we’re mandated to cover that, we have to take over that patrol area,” said Captain Petrovsky.
“We don’t immediately get more guys to cover that extra area. We’re competent, but that increases response times. Locals may be used to having officers there in five minutes, but if I have to pick up an extra area, that township becomes part of zone area, and that trooper might cover five townships in that zone.”
“Response time can become a big thing.”
According to Captain Petrovsky, once he receives official notification about a municipal department closing, he sends the information up the chain of command, and that information is taken into consideration when new cadets are assigned. Nevertheless, that doesn’t happen immediately as recently graduated cadets are assigned just once each year.
While these issues can leave departments stretched thin at times, one saving grace in our area is that the different law enforcement agencies are willing and able to work together and assist one another, according to Pennsylvania State Police Troop E Public Information Officer Michelle McGee.
“I think that despite the challenges law enforcement agencies might face, it is great that we can work collectively and collaboratively across the different agencies, which helps us out all throughout the area,” stated Officer McGee.
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