The Greensboro Police Department (NC) is 115 officers short of its allotted 691 sworn positions, however last week the chief of police asked the city council to reduce the number of budgeted positions to 651. The request has been described as “counterintuitive” by the chief and others, but it all comes down to math.
Chief John Thompson sees that there are funds tied up in the budgeted positions that are vacant. Some of that money has been used to pay officers time-and-a-half for working overtime, but the chief hopes to free up nearly $2 million by reducing the allotted number of sworn by 40, eliminating 30 positions outright and shifting 10 sworn positions to civilian roles. Then, those funds can be used to provide a pay raise of $3,000 for all officers.
“There was some little snippet in the news media here locally about ‘brilliant idea in its simplicity,’ and I said other than I'm the fortunate one that gets to make the decision to push the idea forward, none of it came from my mind,” the chief explains.
Thompson, who was promoted from assistant chief to chief in December, says several people had suggested the idea even before he became chief. The department is battling against losing officers to other better-paying departments and the $3,000 raise is just a first step to fighting attrition.
Ultimately, Thompson wants to increase starting officer pay to $57,000. Currently it is $46,367.
“We've started to see this issue climb. In 2020, we had 35 vacancies in the agency and now two-and-a-half years later 115 vacancies,” Thompson says.
The chief told the council that 115 new officers could not be hired and complete the academy and training quickly, possibly not even in a two-year period. And even if 115 were added, some existing officers would be lost in the meantime to attrition.
“We're authorized 691 officers, because that's how much staff we need to do the anticipated workload that's expected of us. Obviously, we're not doing it so why not compensate the officers here doing the work of that 691?” points out the chief. “We're willing to reduce our staff so that we can compensate our officers better.”
Thompson says his department is the third largest municipal agency in North Carolina, with both Charlotte and Raleigh having more officers. In the past, Greensboro would lose some officers to federal agencies after they served several years. More recently, the department is seeing officers leave to join smaller departments that offer better pay.
“We're actually losing officers to smaller agencies, which historically for us was unheard of. That really started raising our eyebrows a little bit. We're going to have to do something different. We can't just talk about it anymore. We've got to try to put these ideas out there and try to move forward with them,” the chief says.
Just 15 minutes away, the City of Burlington about six months ago bumped starting salary to $55,000 and a pretty comprehensive benefits package, according to Thompson.
“You can drive 15 minutes down the road, you probably don't have to move, you don't have to uproot your family, and you get a $10,000 pay raise,” he adds, while explaining he has lost six officers to Burlington in about six months. In the prior 10 years, he can only recall two officers going to Burlington before the pay increase.
On the flipside, Thompson says he has worked at smaller agencies and knows there is a difference between those and a department the size of Greensboro. Larger agencies, he points out, provide more opportunities for officers to become involved with a variety of units such as bomb teams, drone teams, specialized detective divisions, specialized patrol divisions, and others.
“But it seems to be right now that the focus is on compensation, it's on benefits, and that's what's driving officers to other agencies. And the fact that officers have a choice, if they don't like where they work, odds are that they can go someplace else. There's going to be openings there. And if they have a good reputation, and they're not bringing any baggage with them, an agency is going to pick them up,” he says.
The reduction of officers on the financial books is just part of the proposal. The chief also wants to convert 10 sworn positions to civilian-staffed positions, thereby freeing up sworn officers. Five of those positions will be dedicated to traffic hazard calls, which ties up officers 9,000 to 10,000 hours each year.
“Debris in the roadway, traffic signal out, vehicle broken down, just those type of calls. So, these five civilians will be put into pickup trucks with lights and gear and equipment to just go out and respond to traffic hazard calls. They'll also be able to supplement police officers when they're dispatched to a bad traffic crash where maybe historically it would take three or four officers. You've got three officers shutting down the intersection and one officer doing the report. Well, now we can dispatch a couple of these. We call them GMAPs, Greensboro Motorist Assistance Patrols,” Thompson explains.
Other roles such as court liaison, taxi inspector, deputy public information officer, and a research scientist position also can be filled by civilians, again freeing up more officers.
Pitching the Plan
The chief has been working closely with the city manager and says he could likely just make the changes himself, but he opted to get the plan in front of the council so a reduction of allotted officers does not become a political issue later.
“I didn't really need council approval to make it happen for the actual logistics of it. What I needed council approval for was if we decided to do that and it caused such a community uproar about reducing positions where the community thinks it’s a defund the police movement, or it's a way that council isn't managing properly, or whatever that may be, then that proposal could be dead in the water, even though it's something we want internally,” Thompson says.
The chief says he is fairly confident the plan will be supported by the council, and it will align with the budget process, with the new budget becoming effective. July 1.
He admits it is a “big ask” for the city council to bump starting pay from $46,367 to $57,000. But the council voted 7-2 to request the city manager bring back some suggestions.
“They may not take us to $57,000. Maybe, the $3,000 takes us to $49,000 and they say we can get you to $53,000 this year, and we can get you to $57,000 next year. I'm trying to gear up for those conversations here in the next month, month-and-a-half,” the chief says.