By Alia Malik
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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DULUTH, Ga. — After two years of high attrition, the Gwinnett County Police Department in December was short more than 200 sworn officers.
Then, as the county commission had planned nearly a year earlier, 30 more positions were added to the ranks, in the optimistic hope that one day the department’s staffing could catch up to unabated growth in Georgia’s second-biggest county.
The department has a long way to go.
As of last month, it employed 690 officers out of an authorized strength of 939, leaving more than a quarter of sworn officer positions vacant.
The problem isn’t unique to Gwinnett, amid a string of high-profile controversies involving police across the country that have worsened recruitment and retention everywhere. Staffing levels were a national problem before the tumult of 2020, when Minneapolis police killed George Floyd in May and an Atlanta officer fatally shot Rayshard Brooks weeks later. Then police resignations and retirements spiked for a year after that spring, according to the Police Executive Research Forum.
“The social climate over the past two to three years has made it difficult for law enforcement across the board,” said Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. Ryan Winderweedle days after video footage was released of Memphis police severely beating Tyre Nichols, who later died.
The Atlanta Police Department said it ended last year with 450 sworn officer vacancies, representing 22% of authorized positions. Several law enforcement agencies across Georgia over the last two years have reported vacancy rates of about 20%.
Attrition and recruitment were particularly bad in Gwinnett in 2021, when a staggering 197 officers left the department, for a net loss of 104 when stacked against new hires. GCPD augmented its sworn officer ranks by just five last year after accounting for 115 resignations or retirements and one termination.
“One of the things we found is a direct correlation between attrition and national law enforcement incidents that involved negative outcomes,” Chief J.D. McClure said last year to a county budget committee, adding those same incidents hurt recruitment efforts.
“When citizens take on a negative view of law enforcement on a national level, it also impacts how they may feel about their own police department,” he said.
Even in better times, the stressful and dangerous nature of police work deterred potential applicants, Winderweedle said. In Gwinnett, low officer pay compounded the issue, he said. Even after the county commission approved 10% raises across the board for first responders last year, the Gwinnett police department runs somewhere in the middle of the pack for pay in metro Atlanta, with a starting officer salary of about $47,000.
GCPD in 2019 had a 13% vacancy rate, almost exactly half what it is now.
Increasing the number of applicants is only part of the solution, local leaders say.
Almost 2,000 people applied to be Gwinnett police officers last year, but there are many ways to weed them out, including background checks, polygraph exams and physical tests, Winderweedle said. The department’s current ranks include about 40 in a six-month training academy, but typically some trainees fail or resign.
GCPD’s budgeted size is based on a long-standing goal of employing 1.03 police officers for every 1,000 citizens, McClure said. Based on last year’s service population estimate, that ratio is currently about 0.82 in Gwinnett. At full strength, the department would slightly exceed that ratio, McClure said.
The staffing levels have not affected response to priority calls, but during peak hours, some lesser incidents may take longer to handle, Winderweedle said. Understaffing also complicates officers’ efforts to take vacations or attend trainings.
As of last month, GCPD also had 38 vacant 911 dispatcher positions, more than 30% of the total. Attrition from those jobs was also high because of their stressful nature, Winderweedle said.
“Filling vacancies within 911 is amongst the highest priorities in 2023,” he said.
This year’s $202 million police budget includes an increase of nearly $1 million to outsource false alarm responses, $800,000 for officer and 911 dispatcher hiring incentives and $300,000 for recruiting and out-of-state hiring events.
GCPD has nearly finished putting together a Situational Awareness and Crime Response Center where analysts, who are not sworn officers, can monitor Flock license plate cameras to help officers respond to incidents in real time. The center could help the short-staffed department catch suspects more efficiently, compared to time spent reviewing and acting on camera footage after the fact. But it will not reduce the need for officers on patrol, Winderweedle said.
Department leaders hope efforts to build a positive image in the community will aid recruitment, as well. GCPD created a community affairs unit at the end of 2020 but also decentralized community relations, making it everyone’s responsibility, Winderweedle said. The department also created a behavioral health unit to help respond to mental health crises and the county established a citizen’s advisory board for police.
The department already had many practices in place that others began implementing in 2020, said Winderweedle, including body cameras, de-escalation training and an early warning system that flags officers involved in use-of-force incidents or repeated accidents for potential intervention.
One rainy afternoon earlier this month, several community affairs and western precinct officers crammed into a breezeway in a subsidized apartment complex near Norcross, working with the nonprofit 1PowerHouse to give residents food and household items. Police said they’d participated in similar events at the complex repeatedly in the past few years.
“It shows the human side of us,” said Master Police Officer Fed Joseph of the community affairs section. “As long as you pass the requirements, you’re able to become a Gwinnett County police officer as well. You’d be out here helping the same people that we’re policing.”
Thomas Jones, 18, went through the boxes of blankets and other household items after missing the bus to Norcross High School. The junior said he wouldn’t want to be a police officer because he wants to play football or, if that doesn’t work out, be a mechanical engineer. But he said he respected the officers’ behavior at the giveaway.
“They’re organized, I see,” he said of the officers. “They’re cool.”
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