SALISBURY — In an attempt to keep Salisbury competitive in retaining police officers, City Council members agreed this week that, if Mayor Jim Ireton chooses to advance a budget amendment Monday night, they will be willing to consider granting a $650,000 annual boost to the Salisbury Police Department (SPD) budget to raise officer salaries.
“I think we all recognize the problem,” said Council President Terry Cohen.
According to SPD Chief Barbara Duncan, the city is currently struggling to retain officers who, once they have a few years of experience, are often lured away by other, better paying departments.
“We’re focused on building a premier agency,” said Duncan. “We were that once.”
So far this year, Duncan revealed that SPD has lost five officers, four of which went on to other agencies. Additionally, she warned that several other officers in her department are considering similar moves. The basis of these individuals jumping ship can be traced back to Salisbury’s inability to compete with the salaries and benefits of surrounding law enforcement entities, according to Duncan.
“We need to invest in our personnel,” she said.
SPD has one of the lowest starting salaries for officers in the area. At $36,400, Salisbury is just below Fruitland, which pays rookie officers $36,500. Both agencies are well below the Wicomico and Worcester County Sheriff’s departments, which have starting salaries of $41,300 and $42,100, respectively.
According to Duncan, that gap is exacerbated once officers have a few years of experience, with SPD struggling to keep pace with pay scales used by other agencies.
Duncan was joined by Wicomico State’s Attorney Matt Maciarello, who told the council that his office has noticed officers struggling to keep up with their end of case loads.
“Attrition will certainly affect all of our ability to fight crime in the city of Salisbury,” he said.
According to Duncan, Salisbury officers responded to 51,000 calls for service last year, which works out to 144 per day. That’s with a staff of 92 sworn officers and 30 civilian support staff. Of the nine full-time SPD detectives, each had to deal with an average of 1,893 cases investigated last year.
Uniformed patrol officers dealt with more than 1,000 calls per officer over the year, noted Duncan. Maciarello explained that this could quickly lead to “burnout” amongst law enforcement personnel. He predicted that if the city stays the current course, everyone should get used to officers leaving for greener pastures.
“The five leaving is just the tip of the iceberg,” warned Maciarello.
With every officer that resigns, Maciarello underlined that crime doesn’t decrease. The workload just gets spread out even more.
“They’re going from one call to another … they’re running from rape to robbery to assault to murder all in one night, sometimes,” he said.
Even if no other officers are lost and new recruits are brought up from the academy, of which Duncan confirmed five are currently training, Maciarello stressed that having a police force made up of mostly inexperienced officers could lead to trouble down the road. Rookie officers, he continued, are the most likely to accidently violate someone’s civil rights.
“They have to make split second decisions on the street,” he said.
The council agreed and was unanimously enthusiastic about looking into finding ways to retain officers. According to Duncan’s assessment, $400,000 additional a year would provide a slight increase in pay scale for 60 officers at the lower- to middle-end of the ladder, the most likely to transfer.
She said $650,000 would be ideal and would “fix” instead of treat the problem, at least for the time being. An annual budget increase of $650,000, which would bring the SPD budget up to about $10 million a year, would allow better pay scaling for all sworn officers, including supervisors.
Councilwoman Shanie Shields supported a budget amendment that would take $650,000 from surplus and be put towards police salaries to “make it competitive.”
Councilmember Debbie Campbell felt likewise.
“I would say fix it, fix it now,” she remarked, adding that since $650,000 would represent an annual sum she would like to get an exact number on what the council should supply this year, since it’s already several months into the budget.
With 4-0 consent, and Councilwoman Laura Mitchell absent, the council agreed that if the administration seeks to move forward a budget amendment at the next legislative session Monday, they would be supportive.
Duncan thanked the council, but did point out that this isn’t “a one-year fix” and SPD’s ability to compete with other agencies will continue to be an issue in the years to come. She plans on submitting a potential long-term grade-and-step pay scale chart to the council next week.