Police to offer recruitment bonuses

Published 8:30 pm Thursday, August 22, 2019

Suffolk Police Chief Thomas Bennett’s proposal to offer signing bonuses as an incentive to recruit new officers to the city received unanimous City Council approval Wednesday.

New recruits would get a $2,500 signing bonus under Bennett’s proposal, while fully trained officers coming from other places would receive a $4,000 bonus.

Bennett unveiled the proposal during a City Council work session prior to the regular meeting. He also proposed offering current police department employees who recruit a new officer to the department a $500 bonus after meeting eligibility requirements for it.

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Bennett’s proposal did not require additional funding by council, as he said he can use existing money in his budget to pay for it.

He plans to use about $145,000 — $40,000 to advertise the signing bonus program on billboards and buses, $90,000 for the expected 30 positions he will have to fill before the end of the year, and another $15,000 for the bonuses to employees as an incentive to recruit new officers.

Asset forfeiture funds seized from drug dealers would be used for advertising, as allowed by law, he said, while paying for the bonuses through salary attrition money building up due to vacancies within the department.

Bennett said he wants to offer the bonuses on a six-month trial basis and then evaluate how well the program is working before deciding to whether to continue them.

Bennett said applicants for the city’s police department have declined by 22 percent since 2016, when there were 983 applicants. This year, he is projecting 767 people to apply.

“I need to get more people in the door,” Bennett said.

Bennett cited several factors that have hindered police departments across the country from hiring more officers, including high-profile incidents with police, a good economy coupled with low employment, the increased responsibilities placed upon officers, and increased deaths and injuries in the line of duty.

“The job of a police officer is becoming more and more difficult,” Bennett said. “We’re expected to be a social worker, a police officer, you name it, a teacher. We’re expected to do a lot of things that probably we shouldn’t be doing, but we have to do until some things change in society.”

He said police departments throughout Hampton Roads and the country are seeing significant declines in applications and higher number of vacancies.

“Here in Tidewater, the other police departments are significantly short right now in large numbers,” Bennett said. “I don’t want us to get in a position where we’re 30 or 40 officers short. That’s why I’m here talking to you today.”

The bonus trend, Bennett said, began on the West Coast and has expanded into Virginia. He noted that Hampton offers new officers a $2,000 bonus, and in Charlottesville, lateral officers — those coming from other departments — receive a $5,000 bonus. South Boston and Lynchburg also offer $5,000 bonuses for lateral officers.

Currently, the department has 181 officers and 11 vacancies before a new budget took effect, in which it was authorized to hire 10 more positions. That means the department, as of Aug. 1, is currently 21 officers short of the 202 officers it is authorized to have. Bennett said he expects to lose an additional five to 10 officers before the end of the year.

Applicants who are selected are hired immediately, Bennett said, rather than having them wait for the Basic Police Academy to begin. Bennett outlined other recruiting efforts, such as a streamlined hiring process, an expanded recruiting team and a more lenient tattoo policy. He said the physical test for recruits has changed from a 1.5-mile run to an agility test that more closely mimics officer movements.

An officer has to complete the 17-week program at the Hampton Roads Criminal Justice Training Academy in Newport News, and then go another six weeks to the Suffolk Police Post Academy to learn all city information, policies and procedures, as well as applicable local laws and codes. Nine officers are in the basic academy now, Bennett said, and another 13 to 14 are undergoing a three- to four-month field training phase. Officers work under a probation status for one year from their date of employment.

He said the department is already hiring for the next academy.

“If we can use this program to get one really big push over the next six months, and more and more people in, and have a huge academy or two, we’re going to get well real quick,” Bennett said.

Police officer applicants undergo a stringent process. Using January as a typical month of hiring, Bennett said 60 people applied to be police officers in Suffolk, and three made it through the process.

Ten didn’t meet minimum requirements, and another 39 did not show up for a physical agility test. Of the remaining 11, one failed a written test, three were eliminated through background checks, two in the interview process, another was eliminated for failing a polygraph test and one more eliminated after an interview with Bennett.

He said the department must continue efforts to keep compensation competitive, enhance training and mentorship programs and continue to implement new programs such as using drones, electronic ticketing and adding the use of patrol rifles, and adding new equipment and technology, including providing officers with their own laptops.

The department has upgraded equipment and is continuing those efforts, Bennett told the council, and it is in the process of hiring for a part-time social media position to increase department outreach.

Bennett said one program that proved popular in the department is to allow for shift bidding, which has now been added to its 911 dispatchers. Of the 27 dispatchers, 26 received their first-choice shift.

“We’re doing things like that to try to retain people, keep people happy and make Suffolk the place people want to come and (work),” Bennett said.

Councilmembers expressed support for Bennett’s efforts at recruiting and retaining officers, and for his proposal.

“I am fully supportive of what you’re asking for tonight,” Councilman Roger Fawcett said.