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SPD takes strategic approach to staffing

City aims to solve vacancy problem with new incentives

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A shortage of officers is a problem that has plagued the Springfield Police Department for years, but new strategies and incentives devised by Chief Paul Williams and City Manager Jason Gage aim to solve the problem.

In the Feb. 26 meeting of Springfield City Council, Williams announced the recruiting strategy that had been signed by Gage that morning to fully go into effect next year.

The department is operating at a deficit of 57 sworn officer positions – a number that was as high as 70 in 2021 –  and the new initiatives aim to restore much of the missing police force.

Williams said the department is authorized for 367 sworn officer positions, but only 273 are available for duty. In addition to the 57 vacancies, 14 were in academy training or in the process of lateral or early hire. Another 17 were in a field officer training program and would be released in a month or two, with one on military leave and five injured.

Recruitment efforts begin with an updated website, GoSPD.com, which Williams described as a one-stop shop for potential recruits offering increased visibility and access to the department, and it’s already live. Visitors can click on an online comment card and answer a handful of questions, and the information will be sent to a recruiter. Since last year, the city’s human resources staff has included a specialist assigned to the SPD, and that person can provide immediate follow-up, Williams said.

The department is also working with the city’s Information Systems office on a new customer relationship management system for applicants. Williams said it will allow immediate and ongoing contact with applicants through their preferred means of communication, like right at their fingertips through text messaging.

“I’ve compared it before to recruiting for a (Division I) sports program, and the coach being in constant contact, or a member of their staff, and being virtually in their hand in their living room every day, answering their questions and hopefully keeping them engaged in the process,” he said. “It is a competitive environment, recruiting for the Police Department.”

While ease and clarity of communication is one facet of the strategy, some financial incentives are also in the mix:

Hiring incentives. As of this month, new recruits who make it through the department’s training program will receive a $5,000 hiring incentive, and lateral hires – those coming from jobs in other law enforcement agencies – will receive $10,000.

“We’ve been asking to do this for years,” Williams said. “Finally, I’ll credit our new city attorney, Mr. [Jordan] Paul, for creating a legal way for us to offer a hiring incentive for recruits and laterals.”

Student loan reimbursement. New recruits coming into the SPD with student loan debt will now be provided $2,500 per year for five years on their anniversary date.

“I’m not aware of any other law enforcement agency in the area doing that,” Williams said, adding he hopes the strategy will set SPD apart from other agencies.

Compensation leadership. Williams said the plan includes a commitment ensuring SPD remains in the top third of comparable agencies as it sets pay and benefit rates each year.

The GoSPD website lists pay for new recruits participating in the six-month academy training program at $47,195, rising to $51,916 upon graduation.

Some of the strategies, including hiring incentives and student loan reimbursement, will be paid through savings from vacancies. The 57 currently empty positions equate to almost $3 million annually in salary, not including benefits.

“All of these monetary benefits are coming out of that pool of vacancy monies,” Williams said.

When vacancy money is no longer available, some incentives will also expire, he said.

Among nonsworn, professional staff, there are nine vacancies, he said, noting the number has been as high as 18 in recent years.

The dedicated SPD HR professional helps, Williams said, noting what used to take eight to nine months to get professional staff hired now takes 30-60 days.

Expanding minimum qualifications
As of March 1, SPD has expanded its minimum qualifications for officers, according to an announcement from the city.

Previously, SPD applicants were required to have a high school diploma or equivalency plus another minimum qualification, such as having at least 30 hours of college credit, passing the Class A Peace Officer Standards and Training exam or having a record of honorable service in the military.

New minimum qualifications open the field up to people with a wide variety of life experience, including ownership and management of a business, licensed security work and professional trade experience.

“If you’re gainfully employed in a variety of different businesses and you want to change careers to become a police officer, it’s allowing you to use that work experience in whatever that field might be … in lieu of education and military to get you in the door and let you take that test,” Williams said.

Child care
Williams said the city is researching day care options for all of its departments, but he is focused on extending child care to police families in particular.

“It is a more serious issue for 24/7 operations, and I lose officers every year – not just women who have kids, but men who have families,” he said.

Options include providing a subsidy, contracting with a local provider or establishing something new.

Williams said he knows of only two police departments in the country that are doing that right now – San Diego, California, and St. Louis County.

“We’re going to come up with something here that once again makes us stand out from everyone else,” he said.

A specific timeline was not given by Williams for establishment of child care, though he said he would like to get it going soon.

Crime and safety
Councilmember Brandon Jenson noted statistics from the SPD 2023 Crime Report show a decline in crime, but he questioned Williams about a declining clearance rate of crimes solved.

In 2022, there were 20,301 Group A crimes reported and 5,784 cleared, or solved, for a rate of 28.5%. In 2023, there were 18,918 crimes, with 5,075 or 26.8% cleared. Group A crimes are more serious crimes against persons, property or society.

Williams attributed the decline in the clearance rate to the shortage of officers in the department.

“Basically, that’s a staffing issue,” Williams said. “Less investigators means less time to dedicate to criminal investigations and solving crime, which unfortunately results in less crime being cleared.”

He added that as SPD rebuilds staffing levels, patrol officers will be the top priority, followed by investigative unit staffing.

“Our clearance rates over the last couple years have trended downward, and that’s absolutely an element of staffing and workload,” he said.

He added that this year he is starting a cold case unit to be led by two veteran detectives. They will start with the very few cold case homicides the department has before moving to unsolved sexual and aggravated assault cases.

The one-year pilot program will then be assessed for its effectiveness.

Jenson noted the cold case unit highlights the importance of having a dedicated revenue stream for public safety in the community.

Safety in the city has been cited by members of the business community as a top concern and a barrier to meeting workforce needs.

In the 2023 Springfield Business Journal Economic Growth Survey, which asked 300 area decision-makers to weigh in on issues facing their businesses, 52% of respondents ranked improved safety and security in the city as a top issue they wanted the government’s help to solve.

Recruiting efforts
The department’s recruiting efforts are three-pronged, Williams said, with local, regional and national advertisements now deployed. Vacancy money is funding the marketing effort, he said.

“That’s driving numbers already,” he said. “We’re getting more interest cards and more applicants already.”

The annual marketing budget for the recruitment effort is $200,000, according to Cora Scott, director of public information and civic engagement for the city.

Williams noted 22 people have already signed up for the next SPD academy testing opportunity in March.

One person in the current 12-member academy class relocated from Alaska. Army veteran Tristian Nickless and his wife and daughter moved to Springfield and bought a house at the start of academy training.

“I wanted to pursue a law enforcement career, and I saw that the Springfield Police Department was hiring, so I applied and went through the process and got accepted,” he said.

With his cohort and the training officers, he said he feels like he has found something of a family, too.

“I know I’ve had a few things pop up, and as soon as I let my training staff know that, they asked, ‘What can we do to help?’” he said, adding they were quick to outline resources that were available for him.

When asked why he chose the SPD, Nickless said the benefits, including retirement and health care plans, were a factor.

“The benefits package that the Springfield Police Department offers was definitely a big reason why I wanted to join,” he said.

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