By Tony E. Windsor

As the nation deals with staffing shortages across all industries, police departments are not immune to this familiar crisis. While it is traditionally larger police agencies that are featured in the media, smaller community departments suffer the same work force problems. This is enhanced by the fact that smaller police agencies do not have access to the financial resources that larger departments possess.

A June 2021 national survey found that police departments around the country on average were filling 93 percent of available budgeted positions, according to the Police Executive Research Forum. The survey showed a 45 percent increase in retirements and an 18 percent jump in resignations over the previous year.

On average, officers spend eight months training before they can patrol the streets alone, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That means it will take years to fill open jobs at departments across the country.

The reasons for the recruitment and retention crisis are attributable to “multiple social, political, and economic forces,” including generational differences, negative perceptions of policing and the long hiring process of many agencies, according to a September 2019 survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Additionally, low pay and the so-called great resignation — in which workers voluntarily left their jobs in unprecedented numbers after the pandemic — hit policing as it did other professions.

At a recent Laurel Mayor and Council meeting, Police Chief Danny Wright presented the police department’s standard monthly report. This includes a breakdown of activities carried out by officers during patrols and investigations. The July report also included the status of police department staffing. In all, three police officers have left the department and one is on temporary maternity leave, as of August. Two officers resigned and one officer, Cpl. Brian Komlo, retired after 30 years of service. One of the officers who resigned has taken a position with another police agency.

Wright told the Mayor and Council that currently two of the four police patrol shifts are operating at a minimum of two officers and two shifts have three officers each. He emphasized that this staffing status does not take into consideration such staffing impact issues as vacation, compensation time and sick time. He said in an effort to ensure adequate police coverage for the town, he and two other administrative staff are filling in to help cover shifts.

The workload handled by the police department for a town the size of Laurel has often been lauded as “impressive” in comments from the members of the Mayor and Council. Since January, Chief Wright said Laurel officers have responded to 4,000 complaints.

In the report outlining activities in the month of July, Wright highlighted that officers handled 271 complaints and calls for service. This included 46 criminal and drug felony arrests, 310 traffic-related incidents, and 40 warrants executed involving 11 felony warrants, 11 search warrants and 18 misdemeanor warrants. In addition, officers reported 40 times to assist other emergency responder agencies including the Delaware State Police (27), other police agencies (6) and fire and EMS (12).

With this number of direct-service responses, it would seem that Chief Wright’s pledge to pro-active community policing efforts would be placed on a backburner in lieu of more serious police activities. However, according to the July police department report, officers also managed to make 559 pro-active safety checks of businesses and the overall community.

According to the report, the Laurel Police Department logged 1,915 officer hours in July, including:

• Patrol: 769.5 hours

• Investigations: 271 hours

• Time in court: 64.5 hours

• Activity reports: 205 hours

• Training: 39 hours

• Speed enforcement: 270 hours

• Administrative duties: 444 hours

Chief Wright said the department is being proactive about addressing the staffing issue and has outlined a plan. He explained that next week a new officer hire starts the police academy in Dover, for a 14-week course. He has also hired an officer who seeks to come to Laurel from the Dover Police Department. “This Dover officer has already been trained at the academy and will be able to start very quickly,” he said.

Wright said police candidates have been recruited and there are several in the process of testing to ensure they meet requirements for the position of a police officer. This includes background checks, cognitive testing, reading and writing skills, math skills, physical abilities, situational judgement testing, psychological testing and polygraph test.

Wright said plans are to have three candidates who complete testing successfully be enrolled at the police academy to become patrol officers for the Laurel Police Department. “We are staying proactive in our efforts to fill open positions in the police department,” he said. “It is important that we continue to provide the quality of service that the community deserves.”