WILMINGTON – The aftermath of the protests that gripped the country following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020 are still being felt by law enforcement agencies.
Thirteen hundred miles away, the Wilmington Police Department said those protests eroded faith in those sworn to protect the community. According to the department, it has lost “between 40 and 50 officers” since 2020, many of whom had between one and three years’ experience. The WPD has also had officers retire during that period.
“For a young officer, it can be trying dealing with someone who tells you they hate you,” Chief Donny Williams said at a press conference at WPD Tuesday.
He was joined by Attorney General Josh Stein, district attorney Ben Davis and other officers, from both WPD and New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office.
“We’re operating at a 12% vacancy rate,” New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David added. “We’ve been contacting the state for funding to solve the problem.”
Stein — who is seeking a 2024 run for governor — visited the Port City to promote a plan that would help replenish the numbers.
He has proposed a $23 million package, to be paid out if two bills in the General Assembly pass, designed to hire and retain more officers statewide.
“It’s not enough to say we respect law enforcement,” Stein said. “We have to put our money where our mouth is.”
Officially, the WPD force is down only by six vacancies “on paper,” according to Williams. But that doesn’t account for those serving in the Armed Forces, on family or medical leave, and trainees. The latter includes a dozen in field training currently, down from 20 a few weeks ago.
The chief told council last year compensation was a driving force in losing officers. He said new hires often get training at WPD but then move to other cities for better pay. Williams estimated then it costs roughly $40,000 to train per hire.
The City of Wilmington implemented what Williams called “the largest compensation increase he’d seen in 30 years,” in its fiscal year 2023 budget. Council voted in April 2022 to allocate $1.3 million to raise wages ahead of the fiscal year’s end. WPD specifically averaged pay rates 13% below market before the increase.
In fiscal year 2024, the city implemented a 5% increase in the WPD budget overall, resulting in $1,743,982 more dedicated to the department.
Over the last 12 months, WPD has hired close to 30 officers and 10 will graduate from the academy next week, Williams indicated Tuesday.
According to Stein’s office, 509 fewer recruits across the state took Basic Law Enforcement Training in 2022 than just three years before.
There were also 492 more law enforcement separations than new appointments in the state between 2020 and 2021.
“It’s not unique to southeastern North Carolina,” Williams said.
A decrease in morale is a prime factor in the large number of vacancies nationwide. According to a June 2021 study by the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit public safety think tank, retirements increased by 45% and resignations spiked 18%.
PERF interviewed nearly 200 agencies for the study, asking about staffing levels, numbers of authorized sword positions, as well as details on numbers regarding hires, resignations and retirees. To learn whether those numbers represented any change from the previous year, PEFF asked for the same figures for the period April 1, 2019 to March 31, 2020.
“We hired a lot of guys in the 1990s — and we’re paying for it now,” Williams said. “We can’t afford to lose guys with seven or eight years in who will be replaced by guys with one to three years in. It’s about ‘green training green.’”
Stein is promoting the passage of House Bill 612, which went through a second reading with unanimous approval May 2. Sponsored primarily by Carson Smith (R-Pender, Onslow), the bill would expand the Criminal Justice Fellows Program — which recruits high school seniors and graduates into the criminal justice profession — to reach students in all 100 counties. It also would give students extra time to finish their degrees.
The bill will allot students $3,152 per year in forgivable loans, totaling a maximum of $6,304 over two. No more than 100 loans a year will be issued, with total number of program recipients equaling 200 total annually.
Graduates have up to five years to repay their loan, or the loan can be completely forgiven if they serve in any capacity in law enforcement in North Carolina for four years.
The proposal also pledges hiring bonuses to graduates from BLET academies, as well as recruit military veterans and out-of-state officers. BLET graduates would be eligible for a $5,000 bonus, while out-of-state and former military police officers will be offered a $10,000 bonus and a $10,000 relocation stipend.
The state will launch an advertising and recruiting campaign to bring qualified candidates to North Carolina.
“It’s no longer about poaching officers from within the state,” Stein said. “It’s about poaching officers from outside the state.”
Stein also led the way on Senate Bill 113, proposed in February, currently in the rules committee. Known as the “Bring Back Our Heroes Act,” it will allow retired officers to come back to duty without losing their pensions.
Under the current law, an officer that returns to service can only receive 50% of pre-retirement earnings, equaling no more than around $39,000.
Stein also proposed bonuses for law enforcement officials who go back to school to receive additional training, up to a bachelor’s degree. The plan offers increased mental health services for first responders, too.
“Serving in law enforcement is the most stressful job there is,” Stein said. “Seeing accidents and crime scenes can take a toll, and we need more resources to help these officers.”
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