Police retention and recruitment becomes growing concerns for departments

  • Pembroke Police Chief Gary Gaskell outside the department headquarters on Route 3 on Friday morning. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Concord Police chief Bradley Osgood (on video screen) addressses the Concord City Council on Thursday, May 26, 2022.

  • Bow Chief Kenneth Miller in front of the Bow Safety Center on Friday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 3/25/2023 6:42:46 PM

The number of vacant police jobs throughout New Hampshire has increased by more than 300 unfilled positions in the last year, leaving police chiefs to try to raise wages and improve law enforcement culture to better retain their employees.

Since the beginning of 2022, the number of sworn officers statewide – including all municipalities, cities, universities, security guards and state police – have decreased from 4,351 officers to 4,028, which is a decrease of nearly 8% in one year. Merrimack County has lost 7% of its officers, bringing the number of patrolmen down from 326 to 303 in 12 months.

“I think this is the most perplexing question that law enforcement across the country is facing right now,” said John Scippa, director of the New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council. “A lot of people considered law enforcement at one time but, with the way things are right now, they’re not signing up and instead are going into the private sector.”

The political climate of policing has continued to change, potentially discouraging young workers from choosing a career in law enforcement, which has caused departments nationwide to struggle with recruitment. Local departments are trying to increase their wages to stay competitive with their larger counterparts, which puts a higher burden on taxpayers.

As vacancies across the county increase, many local departments are looking to increase the number of officers they can have on their force and retain officers by increasing their wages this year by as much as 11%, which town officials requested to remain competitive and based on a national inflation rate of 6%.

“Bigger agencies like Nashua and Manchester pay a lot more than most towns, and we’re competing with cities like that, that have a lot of positions and specialties that officers can get into and help with their personal development and growth,” said Bow Chief Kenneth Miller. “It puts small towns at a disadvantage.”

Throughout Merrimack County, police departments – including Weare, Loudon, Chichester, Allenstown, Bow, Pembroke, Epsom and Boscawen – requested higher wages for their employees during town meetings. In addition, Bow, Epsom and Pembroke looked to add another full-time police officer, while others like Loudon and Dunbarton asked voters to approve the purchase of new police vehicles. All of the requests were approved.

Where are officers going, and why are they leaving?

Police officers are most likely to leave their first job within the first two years of employment, with most choosing to join larger agencies with higher pay. A few leave law enforcement altogether.

“Right now, because every agency is hunting for officers, it’s a buyer’s market,” Scippa said. “If there is one agency that pays better or has better working conditions, benefits, locations or opportunities – if there’s ever a time for officers to look at alternative agencies to work for within the state, now’s the time.”

Some agencies like the state police are offering between $10,000 and $20,000 sign-on bonuses with a significant starting pay difference over municipalities, he continued. Boosting wages, offering sign-on bonuses and enhanced benefit packages and improving morale are ways to address recruitment and retention, which remains the single biggest challenge in New Hampshire law enforcement across the state.

“People come to us because we have more of a work-life balance, but you also have to pay the bills,” said Weare Police Chief Christopher Moore. “We don’t offer a lot of benefits for a lot of employees, and there is a draw to other places when you start to look at that and you want to start a family.”

In 2020, the Weare Police Department offered a starting salary of $45,000 a year, which was nearly $22 an hour. Now, officers will start around $53,000 a year, nearly $4 an hour more as part of a renegotiated union contract that was approved at town meeting earlier this month.

“As you grow in this job, you start to have different responsibilities in your personal life, like buying a home and starting a family,” said Pembroke Police Chief Gary Gaskell. “You can’t buy a house for $25 an hour.”

The nature of policing has shifted and deterred people from the industry altogether, said Loudon Police Lieutenant Dana Flanders, who said calls for service in town increased by a third in one year.

Other Concord area towns are experiencing the same thing.

“We see everything that Manchester sees on a smaller scale,” agreed Pembroke’s Gaskell. “Calls are increasing and the severity of those calls are increasing, and you can’t determine when you’re going to get one of those calls, either.”

Epsom Police Chief Brian Michael noted the two main state roads that cross through town – Route 4 and Roue 28 – when asking voters to approve a new officer this year to increase the force from six to seven.

“We’re still responding to a cat in the tree and a dog on the loose,” Michael said. “The seriousness of the calls has certainly increased.”

Budget impacts

Weare is a live-free-or-die town, meaning residents believe in small government and low taxes. In the past, if the police department has requested additional officers or funds for the department, they’ve been voted down because residents don’t want to pay more in taxes, despite department needs.

As a result, the department doesn’t have the staff to operate 24 hours a day. Weare, which staffs 12 full-time officers and has two current vacancies, would need an additional six to eight officers to operate 24/7. Reaching that point would lead to massive increases in the police budget, which voters are unlikely to approve, Chief Moore said.

The lack of retention not only leads to calls for increased wages, it impacts the service the community is receiving, Loudon Lt. Flanders said.

“It takes away our ability to work together and be in public together. We have a town of 6,000 people and it eliminates any chance for double coverage,” Flanders said. “It pulls us away from community events because we have to cover the road, and there aren’t many things we’re able to do extra besides our basic police duties.”

As part of the town budget, Pembroke residents approved $70,500 for a new police officer that was added last year and a separate request for a new police cruiser.

Since 2019, Pembroke has lost five officers and is currently down three of their 10 full-time positions as many have left for other agencies with wages the department can’t compete with, Chief Gaskell said.

But Loudon and Bow police departments have managed to retain most of their officers despite the struggles of their peers.

Loudon, which has seven full time officers, has one vacancy that’s been open since the beginning of the year, while Bow remains fully staffed with 13 officers for the first time in several years. Most of their officers have been there for seven to 10 years.

In addition to offering a $2,500 sign-on bonus, voters approved a pay raise for Bow police officers last week during town meeting, which will boost officers starting salary from $49,300 to $54,600 annually, which is about $26 an hour – a 10% increase.

Between 2019 and 2020, the Loudon Police Department saw significant turnover and at one point were down to four officers out of their seven authorized positions, which forced them to rely heavily on their part-time officers and overtime, Flanders said. Over the last two years, the department has remained almost fully staffed.

Included in the town’s operational budget which passed last week, wages will be increased to $51,400 a year, which is about $23 an hour.

“I think when you look at the other agencies around us, they saw the massive increases that Nashua, Manchester and Concord give, and when you look at the population size, my folks aren’t going to the same calls that they do on a constant basis,” Flanders continued. “For years, we’ve been on the lower end of the wage scale.”

Changing culture

In 2014 after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old Black man, in Ferguson, Mo., the public’s perception around policing began to change and sparked a national reckoning about the relationship between law enforcement and race, use-of-force polices and police brutality. The conversation continued through 2020 following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and most recently with the death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tenn.

“The profession as a whole isn’t as attractive as it used to be with all of the national attention we’re getting,” said Bow Chief Kenneth Miller. “Everything is about police reform, which are things we need to do without a doubt, but it does affect people’s opinions about coming into the field, and the culture has changed.”

Scippa, who retired as the Stratham police chief in 2018, agreed.

“It’s a challenging job to begin with, but it’s exacerbated by the overall public sentiment of the industry right now; that could be part of it,” Scippa said. “It could be based on the communal response to law enforcement; there’s a sense of a lack of support from the community and folks are fearful of being vilified in the media for any decisions that they make regardless of whether they’re lawful decisions or not.”

The impact of COVID-19 has also changed the way people view the workforce, and many have learned they can work remotely and have the luxury of a better work/life balance, said Concord Chief Bradley Osgood. In policing, remote work isn’t an option, and it never will be.

“Here in Concord, the biggest competitors for people that want to come into policing are Nashua, Manchester and the State Police, and even towns like Londonderry and Derry,” Osgood said. “People that want to be police officers in New Hampshire but live in Massachusetts are looking for jobs in southern New Hampshire.”

Surrounding towns are facing the same challenges and are also losing officers to the state police, larger cities and the private sector, police chiefs echoed throughout the county.

Increased competition

Concord got out in front of inflation and increased wages in 2020 in the middle of the pandemic.

Councilors added nearly $1 million to the police budget primarily to raise wages to help attract and retain employees and deter officers from leaving for higher paying jobs.

Last month, the council approved a new contract for Concord patrol officers, which contained 4% raises to offset the rising cost of living, bringing starting wages to $28 an hour.

“I think 4% was a pretty strong number for City Council to offer,” Osgood said.

The increase will raise the Concord Police Department’s budget above $15 million, the vast majority of which will go to employee compensation, he continued. Other expenses include fuel cost increases, utilities, benefits, recruitment, training and gear.

“The City Council recognizes that we need to stay competitive,” Osgood said. “Do they have to be the highest paid? No, and I wish they were, but certainly a community like Manchester is quite a bit busier than Concord and they probably deserve to be at the heart of it, but we still have to remain competitive.”

Last year, the City Council added two more officers bringing the total number of police to 90, which currently has 14 vacancies – 15% of the work force – that they’re hoping to partially fill by August, Osgood continued. Of the vacancies, some left within the first few years because the job wasn’t for them, a few retired, and several left for other opportunities at other agencies.

“On average, we lose about eight officers a year and that includes resignations, retirements, leaving for another department, joining the private sector, etc.,” Chief Osgood said. “Very rarely do you see an officer that’s been here for eight to 12 years leave to go to another department.”

The turnover rate has remained consistent throughout the last couple of decades, Osgood said. Those numbers don’t include officers that are out for injury, deployment, maternity leave or training, which increases total vacancies to nearly 25% and caused extreme overtime. Annually, the department budgets $700,000 for overtime costs and regularly spends between $1.2 million and $1.4 million.

Despite the overspending, the overtime costs pay for themselves with the savings from vacant positions, Osgood said.

“That’s where we are now; we’re asking 75% of the force to do 100% of the work,” he said. “That’s become problematic because it creates burnout and lack of retention, and the way to avoid that is to reduce the services we provide the community. And it’s hard to say what we can stop doing.”

To offset some of the burnout, the department always considers asking the city for more officers by looking at upcoming housing proposals that will increase the city’s population, calls for service and community needs.

Yet as Concord increases its wages, it puts pressure on surrounding towns to follow suit to keep their own officers.

“The small towns are all kind of playing catch-up to these bigger agencies and we want to say, ‘OK, you’re not leaving because of the money,’ maybe it’s because we don’t have a specialty unit or a canine program,” said Loudon Lt. Flanders. “But I think you’re getting people that want to do the job for the right rea sons who are applying right now.”

Jamie Costa

Jamie Costa joined the Monitor in September 2022 as the city reporter covering all things Concord, from crime and law enforcement to City Council and county budgeting. She graduated from Roger Williams University (RWU) in 2018 with a dual degree in journalism and Spanish. While at RWU, Costa covered the 2016 presidential election and studied abroad in both Chile and the Dominican Republic where she reported on social justice and reported on local campus news for the university newspaper, The Hawks' Herald. Her work has also appeared in The *Enterprise *papers and the *Cortland Standard *and surrounding Central New York publications. Costa was born and raised on Cape Cod and has a love for all things outdoors, especially with her dog.

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