As homicide numbers barrel toward levels not seen since the 90s, Charlotte’s police force is battling another intractable problem — difficulty recruiting and retaining its officers.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department currently has 138 vacant officer positions that it’s trying to fill, according to city data. That’s roughly 7 percent of the 1,900 officer positions in the department.
And filling them is continually getting harder. Where CMPD once pulled 1,000-plus qualified applicants during a recruiting period, they’re now getting between 200 to 300, Chief Kerr Putney has said.
For black officers, the talent pool is shrinking even faster. CMPD has been able to hire only 11 African-American officers so far this year, compared with 28 in the first nine months of 2016, according to CMPD data.
CMPD’s difficulties don’t stop once recruits are hired. There has also become a steep drop-off once an officer reaches two to three years of experience.
Public pressure and pay
Police officials point to two primary factors influencing the difficulty in recruiting.
First, they draw direct parallels with the intense public criticism police departments have faced over the past few years.
Putney regularly uses the phrase “post-Ferguson era,” referring to the weeks of protests and riots in Missouri after a black teenager was shot by a white police officer in fall 2014.
Charlotte has its own tenuous relationship between police and the public. The city recently marked the one-year anniversary of the police-shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott, a black man who lived in north Charlotte.
Tensions have been inflamed this month after the release of police bodycam video depicting the officer-involved shooting death of Rueben Galindo. The Charlotte Observer and activist groups have said Galindo had his hands in the air when he was shot. Putney has defended his officers’ actions.
“Officers are constantly being second-guessed,” said Mark Michalec, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Fraternal Order of Police.
“I don’t think there is anything wrong with constructive oversight or criticism of police in what we do. Unfortunately, there isn’t much constructive criticism. … Locally, if CMPD is involved there is an automatic criticism to the CMPD’s actions.”
Putney has toed a delicate line on this front. He has been careful to say that police officers should face scrutiny and be held accountable for improper actions, and he has been unusually frank about his own history of distrust of law enforcement growing up.
But Putney also acknowledges that intense public criticism makes it more difficult to bring in new officers and keep them from leaving.
“It is difficult recruiting and a lot of that is based on the environment,” Putney told the City Council earlier this year. “We are seeing more people now change course because of the environment. It is a tough policing environment.”
The second factor is compensation.
Putney has said many of Charlotte’s top officers get poached to federal law enforcement positions, which pay more. Starting pay for a CMPD officer is $43,492, which is lower than the national average for mid-size to large cities. Salaries for CMPD officers top out around $66,000.
“There needs to be some sort of consistency for officers,” Michalec said. “With competitive benefits, candidates will apply.”
Homicides still rising
The problem is particularly acute this year as CMPD seeks to combat another spike in homicides. There have been 72 killings so far in 2017.
That makes this year already the deadliest in Charlotte since 2008, when there were 83 homicides. There’s a good chance 2017 could eclipse that total.
The record for homicides in a single year in Charlotte is 129, set in 1993 during the crack epidemic.
The applicant pool is key because of how rigorous the process is to become a CMPD officer.
It typically takes four to five months from start to finish and includes an extensive background check, a polygraph exam, a battery of interviews and physical fitness tests — all before the recruit can enter the training academy.
In 2016, the last year for which data was available, a total of 2,202 applications were received. Of those, only 173 began the law enforcement training program and 107 were sworn in as officers. Only 17 officers were hired from other police departments.
CMPD has an open application period for officers each quarter. The next one will be held between November 1 and November 15.
Charlotte’s police force is already smaller than many of its peer cities. The Queen City has about 21 officers per 10,000 population, compared with a national average of 23, according to data compiled by Governing magazine.
Atlanta has 38. Richmond has 33, Pittsburgh has 28 and Tampa has 26.
Charlotte’s City Council has increased the size of the police force by a combined 125 officers over the past two years, the first increases since 2008.