St. Clair Shores Police Department struggles to fill positions

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published February 15, 2019

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ST. CLAIR SHORES — Just search “police staffing” online and the results are filled with articles proclaiming shortages around the country.

More people going to college for four-year degrees, an increasingly sedentary population, high attrition rates and other factors seem to be affecting the number of candidates considering a job on the police force, an issue seen in St. Clair Shores as well.

St. Clair Shores Police Chief Todd Woodcox said that the city’s police and fire millage authorizes the department to have 89 total personnel.

“Currently, we have 85 and a half because our deputy chief, who was scheduled to retire, agreed to stay on in a part-time capacity until we could get our numbers up a little bit,” he said.

Over the last seven or eight years, Woodcox said, he has found it harder to hire police officers to fill positions in the department.

“The job is becoming much less attractive to people. It used to be a family career, where dad would be an officer and granddad would be an officer,” he explained. “These days, with the working conditions, the constant second-guessing that’s going on, people are not encouraging their family members to get into this line of work.

“People are able to find better-paying jobs with better hours and less danger involved.”

A new officer on the beat in St. Clair Shores will typically work the midnight shift from 12 to 8 a.m., along with weekends and holidays, “missing, obviously, family events and family gatherings because we can’t just take holidays off. We have to be here,” Woodcox said.

Nationally, the attrition rate for police officers, at 14 percent, is higher than that of nurses at 12 percent and teachers at 13 percent, according to a study by the North Carolina Criminal Justice Analysis Center.

The shortage of officers is spread throughout the department, Woodcox said. Right now, St. Clair Shores is short on two of its three patrol shifts, as well as by one officer in the detective bureau, and the difference is made up with overtime.

“In the short term, it actually saves the city money to run slightly understaffed,” he said. “It’s cheaper to pay a few officers overtime than to get to full staffing, but that is not the way we should be operating.”

Officers typically work overtime even when the department is fully staffed to cover vacations, sick time and special events. But with overtime comes the risk of officer burnout.

“We don’t want officers just on the street as a warm body in a police car,” Woodcox said. “Once you cross a certain threshold, it’s hard to be effective when you’re working too many hours.”

The City Council has even encouraged the hiring of more officers when there are enough “solid applicants” to have more than 89 bodies on the force, Woodcox said.

But with the number of applicants down, the percentage of those who pass St. Clair Shores’ hiring examination and fit the city’s qualifications are fewer.

“We have less applicants that fit our qualifications,” Woodcox said.

That isn’t stopping the department from recruiting at police academies around the state, however.

“We will have two officers, both Ferris State alumni, at (Ferris State University’s) career fair. We’ve had great success with the officers that we have hired out of Ferris State,” Woodcox said.

The chief goes across the state visiting police academies and teaches at Macomb Community College’s Police Academy.

“I’m always cheerleading for the city of St. Clair Shores when I’m teaching there,” he said.

At the academy level, however, interest in law enforcement does not seem to be waning, according to Macomb Police Academy Director Raymund Macksoud.

He’s been connected with the academy since 1989, and said that the classes now are at the largest levels they’ve been on a regular basis, with the last three academies at full capacity.

That has caused MCC to institute a third session of the Police Academy that runs on nights and weekends.

“We’ve had full classes here, and the last 10 years, we’ve been at higher numbers for academy than we have in our past,” Macksoud said.

He said the enrollment numbers show that, at least at MCC, prospective police officers are not being scared away from the profession.

But Woodcox said that when he first applied to the St. Clair Shores Police Department in 1991, he tested against about 600 applicants for a handful of jobs.

“Fast forward to our most recent application process, which closed in January, and we had 19 for four current openings,” he said.

Going back to 2013, Woodcox said, about a third of candidates tend to fail the city’s unique entrance exam. Many neighboring communities use a test given through Empco, which puts every candidate into one eligibility pool.

“Going through Empco, we wouldn’t be doing our own interviews. We would just get a list of candidates and know nothing about them,” he said.

The city uses Empco for its promotional examinations.

“Fortunately, St. Clair Shores has maintained a very good benefit package for officers, including new hires,” Woodcox said. “Our benefit package is definitely at least equal to, if not better than, the surrounding communities.”

Another issue that Woodcox said the department has is getting the face of the force to better reflect the diverse makeup of the community. But he said that he has trouble getting minority candidates to even apply to the city for positions.

“If I knew the why, I would fix it,” he said. “When I was teaching this most recent academy class, it was almost entirely white males, with a couple white females. We’re definitely lacking diversity, and I would love to change (that because) all government agencies should reflect the community that they serve.”

Macksoud said, however, that “we see a very good mix here” of race and gender in the student population at the Macomb Police Academy.

“We’re giving them what they need, and they take it out of here,” he said.

Macksoud said that part of the problem with filling spots in departments is that the job market is cyclical and, right now, there are a lot of officers eligible for retirement.

“It’s a hot job market right now. There are more openings across Michigan right now,” he said, adding that the hiring process can take three to nine months.

“You’ve got a lot of agencies hiring. People have choice,” Macksoud said. “They can look and check things out. Check out the city, the contracts and make a choice.”

Woodcox said that according to the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, this is a widespread problem.

“At that point, if every cadet in every academy got hired in Michigan, Michigan would still be several hundred officers short,” Woodcox said.

Along with working with local police academies, Woodcox said that they’ve been working with representatives from the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards to develop outreach programs for minority communities.

“Perhaps we can convince them that this is a wonderful career path for them,” he said. “To try to come up with something, so we can recruit quality applicants. We can only hire people that are applying.”

The St. Clair Shores Police Department is also working to stem the flood of retirees with its Deferred Retirement Option Plan, or DROP, which freezes pension benefits when the officers enter the plan. The officers can then continue working for an additional three years, collecting their salary but not their pension benefits. At the end of the three years, the retiree gets a lump sum of the pension that the retiree would have been paid over the prior three years.

Command staff members with 25 or more years of service who were eligible to retire were first able to enter the program in April 2018. Since then, five command officers have entered the program.

“Once they’re in the DROP program, they have to retire within three years,” Woodcox said. “It’s a stopgap measure until, hopefully, we can get more people hired in the bottom end.

“Without this program, we’d be short another five positions.”

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