More than a dozen Washington, D.C.-area police departments are operating with fewer sworn officers than they’re authorized to have on staff, according to an investigation by the News4 I-Team.
The implications of these shortages vary, but police unions said the records obtained by the I-Team demonstrate a growing concern among rank and file officers.
Police departments are facing increasing competition for new recruits to bolster their staffing levels, according to several law enforcement officials who spoke with the I-Team. Several local police departments, including Maryland State Police and Prince William County police have released recruitment videos to help attract prospective hires.
Public records obtained by the I-Team show Virginia State Police, Prince William County (Va.) Police, the Loudoun County (Va.) Sheriff’s Office, Maryland State Police, Frederick County (Md.) Sheriff’s Office, Hagerstown (Md.) Police, Gaithersburg (Md.) Police, Frederick City Police, Montgomery County (Md.) Police, and Howard County (Md.) Police and are operating with fewer sworn officers than they’re authorized to have under local rules or budgets.
Several agencies, including Prince William County, Howard County and Gaithersburg, said the shortfalls in sworn officers do not impact public safety. Others acknowledged concerns that could impact their response times.
“We make sure our patrol, which are our first of the first responders, are as close to fully staffed as possible at all times. When staffing levels are low, certain sworn positions in non-essential offices and divisions are kept vacant until overall levels increase,” said Prince William County Police spokesman Jonathan Perok.
A spokeswoman for the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office said, “The major impact clearly reduces the amount of deputies on the street per shift on any given day which reduces the availability of Deputies to handle calls for service from the public.”
“Our patrol shifts work at a minimum staffing level," she said. "If that number falls below the minimum it requires the agency to keep someone past their normal shift or call in replacements. In the long term leave impact hold overs create fatigue and burn out issues within the agency.”
Agency records obtained under the freedom of information act reveal internal concerns about staffing levels in at least local police departments. In an application for funding from the U.S. Justice Department, Charles County, Maryland, sheriff’s officials said it needed financial help to hire seven additional officers. In its request, the sheriff’s office said from 2015 to 2016 “homicides, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults are up by 8.6 percent. This is of great concern.”
The Charles County aid application also said, “Meanwhile, the population of Charles County has increased by nearly 8,200 residents and (the sheriff’s office) has added no additional officers in that time frame.”
In a similar aid application, Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department said it also needed federal aid to help hire additional officers. The agency acknowledged it has fewer than the 4,000 officers it is authorized to employ. A police official wrote the U.S. Justice Department to request funding to help hire additional officers to “address the evolving nature of violent crime and the dangerous offenders who perpetrate these offenses.”
National police unions said these staffing shortages create a risk to the public and to the officers. National Fraternal Order of Police President Chuck Canterbury said police departments that fail to employ the authorized number of officers risk suffering slower response times to crimes and are less equipped to provide preventive patrols that deter crimes.
“Preventive policing takes a back seat and standards for recruitment slide when police are understaffed,” Canterbury said.
Recruitment is growing more difficult for police agencies because of increasing competition from private sector jobs with higher salaries amid a rebounding economy, Canterbury said. Prospective police officers are also discouraged by recent assaults on law enforcement officers, he said.
Union representatives of U.S. Park Police said staffing shortages are also impacting federal law enforcement.
“We need people. We need to recruit them, train them and put them on the street. All of these things cost money,” said Ian Glick, who represents Park Police officers in D.C., New York City and San Francisco.
U.S. Park Police records show a nearly 10 percent reduction in sworn U.S. Park Police officers between 2010 and 2016.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Charles County Sheriff’s Office said, “Fortunately, in Charles County, our crime numbers have not kept pace with the significant growth in population. But, we realize things could change quickly and if that happens, we would be dealing with more calls for service, more crime, and more problems, which could ultimately impact the way we work. Here is one example: Today we are heavily involved in community relations and community events, but any continuous rise in crime trends could limit our ability to participate in those events. We don’t want that to happen because communities that have strong relationships with their police departments, like we have, simply tend to thrive better. There is more trust, more communication and more problem solving. We would hate to lose what we have worked so hard to build.”