The Gwinnett County Police Department keeps running towarda moving finish line.
The agency continues to increase its number of officers, but as the county grows, so does the number of positions that need filling. If no new positions had been added after 2017, the department would be fully staffed, according to Lt. Jake Smith, a department spokesman. But at its current authorized force — 878 sworn officers — Gwinnett County is understaffed by more than 100 officers.
“The vacancies now are mostly due to the authorized positions added,” Smith said. “We’re playing catch-up.”
That gap could get larger if Gwinnett County authorizes 30 more positions in its 2020 budget. Outgoing Chief Butch Ayers requested the increase in officers in an August budget presentation, citing a steady increase in calls to the county’s 911 center and the continuous growth of Gwinnett’s population. The 30 new officers are in the proposed budget, which has not yet been approved.
The problems of recruitment and retention are not unique to Gwinnett; fewer people are applying to be police officers nationwide, and police departments are seeing employees leave earlier in their careers, and sometimes leaving law enforcement altogether, according to a September report from the Police Executive Research Forum. The report cites a strong job market and declining numbers of people most likely to pursue policework — former members of the military and family members of police officers — as key factors. This has made the hiring market “hypercompetitive” in metro Atlanta, Ayers said in August.
The agency is not just sitting back and waiting for more applicants. The department has ramped up its recruitment efforts, spending $362,316 in 2018 and $337,796 in the first seven months of 2019. In addition to regular job fairs in Gwinnett and metro Atlanta, the department has traveled across the country to conduct hiring events and recruit at colleges. The department has repeatedly traveled to upstate New York, where civil service exams and other bureaucratic red tape make local hiring processes slower, Smith said.
At both local and out-of-state hiring events, candidates can knock out some of the first steps of the process in a few hours. They complete physical fitness evaluations, panel interviews and a background check, and can be given a conditional job offer on the spot if they check out. Previous convictions are almost always a disqualifier, but one of the biggest roadblocks to making a hire is a poor driving record, Smith said.
The recruitment efforts have worked. Gwinnett’s current police academy is its largest ever, with 53 cadets working to become officers.
Gwinnett’s average starting pay is below that of many departments in metro Atlanta, according to Ayers’ August presentation. South Fulton, Brookhaven and Atlanta police departments have the highest average pay, with South Fulton paying an average of $52,007 for those hired as certified officers and $44,926 for those hired with no experience. Average pay for Brookhaven and Atlanta officers is $48,500. Gwinnett sits towards the bottom, with an average officer salary of $39,801. Only Clayton County, Doraville and Henry County pay less among large departments in the metro area.
The department is also second-lowest in the county, beating only the small Auburn Police Department in average starting pay — Auburn’s average is $37,139. Smaller municipal departments in Gwinnett all pay an average of $40,000 or more; Suwanee’s at the top with $44,451.
Ayers did not ask for a pay raise for the police in his August budget presentation, but officers may receive one if the county approves a government-wide pay raise as it did for 2018 and 2019.
While the starting pay is lower than many other departments, Gwinnett recruits receive full-time pay from the point they’re hired, including before and during their 26-week police academy training. The department also likes to emphasize to potential recruits the opportunities for advancement in pay and rank, Smith said. Officers can receive “noncompetitive” promotions through the rank of master police officer. They’re not competing with anyone else for the job, but awarded the title and raises in accordance with performance, Smith said. Officers can reach a salary of $51,000 within three years, and then apply for special departments if they choose.
Gwinnett has teams including SWAT, K-9 and vice that smaller departments may not. Because of the agency’s size, candidates may also be able to move up the ranks faster because there are more positions. Most city police departments in Gwinnett County have around 100 officers or fewer, with a small handful of those spots being command positions.
Smith cites the ability to move from team to team — in 15 years, he’s had roles including SWAT negotiator, burglary detective and public information officer, and now, a patrol lieutenant— as another incentive for recruits to stick with the department and find a niche.
Another obstacle to the department becoming fully staffed is officer attrition — people leaving the department, whether it be for retirement or another job. For four of the last eight years, more officers have left the department than were hired. But Gwinnett is on track to have a third straight year of net positive growth, with more officers hired than departed. As of July, the department had hired 130 new officers and saw 104 leave.
Some who leave the Gwinnett department head to smaller city agencies or to jobs as school resource officers. Gwinnett County Public Schools gets about 75 percent of its school resource officers from GCPD and city departments in Gwinnett, district spokeswoman Sloan Roach said.
The district requires SROs to be POST certified with at least five years of experience in policing. In August, Ayers said he believed school districts and city departments hired away Gwinnett officers because of the “Gwinnett standard” instilled in them. Roach did not disagree.
“We know they are well trained and their procedures line up with our department,” Roach said. “Their experience is key for us … Many of their experiences are specialized — sometimes they’re coming from [the special victims unit] or the gang task force. Those experienced officers help bring something to our force and add to what we can do as far as working with students.”
The district doesn’t specifically target Gwinnett officers, Roach said, but many come from GCPD and other area departments because they already have experience in the community. The pay for SROs ranges between $40,700 and $65,275 for those classified SRO I and between $49,463 and $76,070 for those classified SRO II.
Leaving for other law enforcement jobs is not new, but leaving the field entirely is a trend nationally and within the Gwinnett County Police Department. Pursuing a career outside of law enforcement is the second most common reason given when officers leave a department, according to the Police Executive Research Forum study.
“It seems sometimes younger people are not looking for a career, they’re looking for a job,” Smith said.
While there is not a formal program directed at retention like there is for recruitment, there are some things the department does to foster community. Promotion ceremonies are held multiple times a year, and there was a uniform ball last year, Smith said. There are awards for officer of the month and officer of the year.
While the department has been understaffed, cuts have not come from essential services like emergency response, Smith said.
“There are 100 officers on shift at any given time,” Smith said. “If we need backup, we’re going to get it. If we need a detective, we’re going to get it. The amount of resources we can bring to bear is pretty impressive.”
There has been no mandatory overtime for officers in recent years, but optional opportunities during the holiday shopping season and major metro Atlanta events like the Super Bowl are made available to those who want to volunteer, Smith said.
Major casualties stemming from understaffing are units like crime suppression and parks, Smith said. These units, which are not currently active, focused on proactive patrolling: being visible in areas where crime is more likely to occur. Some work in parks has been helped by the Volunteer Citizens on Patrol program, in which police-trained volunteers conduct “high visibility patrols” in Gwinnett parks.
“We’ve been able to do more with less with the support of the citizens,” Smith said.
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