Ky. law enforcement officials detail efforts to hire, retain cops

Police officials say they've tried increasing pay, offering financial incentives for certain shifts and offering more promotions

By James Mayse
Messenger-Inquirer, Owensboro, Ky.

INDEPENDENCE, Ky. — Shawn Butler, retired police chief of the Independence Police Department, told state lawmakers Tuesday that there was a time when the department would receive hundreds of applications from people interested in being police officers.

But by the time Butler retired in 2015, the number of applications the department was receiving during hiring efforts had fallen to only about 35.

Law enforcement agencies across the state are facing the same problem.

"People are just not coming into this field, and we have to find a way to overcome it," Butler said.

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Butler and the chiefs of the Henderson and Covington police departments discussed the challenges of hiring and retaining law enforcement officers during a Tuesday meeting of the Interim Local Government Committee in Frankfort.

"There has been a loss of respect for police in our society, which is sad," Butler said.

While Butler and others agreed that the negative views of law enforcement in recent years have affected recruiting, they also said they face challenges attracting younger generations of workers, while all competing for the same small pool of applicants.

Henderson Police Chief Heath Cox said the city has increased the pay of its officers and gives financial incentives for working certain shifts, which brings the starting salary for some officers up to about $20 an hour. But the department paid for raises and incentives by keeping six officer positions unfilled, so it has 56 officers instead of 62, he said.

Henderson has taken a number of actions to retain officers, such as offering more promotions, rehiring retired officers and allowing officers to take patrol vehicles home as long as they live in Henderson County. There are other options officials would like to take if the city had options for raising revenue, Cox said.

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Applications to the department are down 75% or more compared to a decade ago, he said.

"We are hiring quality people," Cox said. "It's just a smaller pool."

One idea under consideration is moving from eight-hour to 12-hour shifts, which would give officers more time off, Cox said. That change could potentially appeal to millennial generation applicants.

"We have to ... have processes in place to build that work-life balance," he said.

The department tries to combat negative stereotypes about law enforcement by getting positive stories out through the media, he said.

Most people support law enforcement but are silent about it, Cox said.

[READ: Has your morale been snatched?]

Butler said law enforcement agencies across the state are all facing shortages of officers. " Owensboro is down 25 officers," he said.

Covington Police Chief Rob Nader said changes to the state's pension system for public employees, including police officers, have had an impact.

While the chiefs said they understood pension changes were necessary, "you must realize there are unintended consequences for those decisions," Nader said.

Also, lawmakers should consider requiring new officers to stay with the department that paid for their training for at least a few years to prevent an officer to be trained by one department and then take a position at a higher-paying department, he said.

Such a bill would "allow cities to get a return on their investment," Nader said.

Butler said the state could help by allowing more remote training rather than having officers travel to the state police academy in Richmond. Allowing remote training would enable the training to be broken up, which would keep officers "on the street and in the city."

Allowing officers from states with fewer required police academy hours to become officers in Kentucky faster would also help, he said.

When asked if national discussions about "defunding" law enforcement have had an impact, Butler said, "If you're thinking about going into a field and you're hearing, 'We are going to defund you' ... that's a huge negative impact."

When asked if millennial candidates might be interested in increased pay up front rather than retirement benefits, Cox said the possibility should be explored.

"If we don't change, we are going to be left behind," he said.

(c)2021 the Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, Ky.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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