A hike in starting pay for Dauphin County sheriff's deputies has led to a surge in new hires, allowing the department to transition from a skeleton crew to a full complement able to execute its duties.
In July, Dauphin County 25 of 53 sheriff's deputy positions were vacant. Since then, the department has brought on 16 new deputies, the greatest surge in recent years, according to Dauphin County Sheriff Nick Chimienti.
That came after a Feb. 9 vote in which Dauphin County Commissioners approved raising deputies’ starting pay from $16.89 an hour to $24.39.
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The Dauphin County Sheriff’s Department’s responsibilities include issuing licenses to carry firearms; prisoner transportation; courthouse security; serving protection-from-abuse Orders, warrants and eviction notices.
Chimienti said serving warrants and PFA orders is especially dangerous because it involves going to a person’s home and either arresting them, or taking their guns. These tasks have dramatically increased over the years, and the low pay for doing that dangerous job, Chimienti said, caused morale to bottom out in the last few years.
Unspent money that was reserved for vacancies in the sheriff’s office was spent to increase the starting wage of new hires for 2023, according to Jennifer Fitch, Dauphin County Spokesperson.
Dauphin County is slated to spend $3.1 million total on wages and salaries within the Sheriff’s Office, according to the 2024 budget proposal. That’s a $422,857 increase from the 2023 budget, Fitch said.
It costs Dauphin County $18,000 to train and equip a new hire at the sheriff’s office, Chimienti said. And when starting pay was under $17 an hour, many deputies would earn their certifications on Dauphin County’s dime, then leave to work someplace where they could earn more.
“Law enforcement and police opportunities in Dauphin County and surrounding counties were plentiful,” Chimienti said. “These qualified candidates wisely choose higher-paid agencies to begin their career.”
Cumberland County was one such better-paying sheriff office. In 2022, when Dauphin County was starting its new hires at $16.89 an hour, Cumberland County was paying its deputies $21.50 an hour.
Where Dauphin County could only fill 28 of its 53 positions, Cumberland County’s 37 positions have consistently remained filled, according to Jodi Smith, Cumberland County Sheriff.
Cumberland County currently starts its deputies at $24.50 an hour, and after a year of training and certification, that pay bumps up to $25.74 an hour.
Sheriff's deputies are responsible for securing Dauphin County’s 9 courtrooms and Cumberland County’s 7 to keep the peace during what can sometimes be incendiary court events. People from all walks of life come to watch these trials — and can be unpredictable if they hear or see something they do not like in court.
It turns staffing assignments into a delicate game of chess, deciding who goes where to best cover the courthouse with the resources the office has.
“You quickly run out of bodies,” Smith said.
Those are bodies that are also needed to serve an ever-increasing volume of PFA orders. From 2013 to 2023, those orders more than doubled—From 429 to 1054 in Dauphin County, and 301 to 657 in Cumberland.
Cumberland County assigns two deputies to cover the night shift, where they execute PFA orders as they come in. Dauphin County used to do that until the staffing shortage forced them to either execute the orders in the afternoon, or wait until the next morning.
Smith said in 2013, sheriff's deputies used to only serve the order at the defendant’s home and retrieve their firearms. But subsequent changes to the laws that dictate PFA orders have made the process more complex
Defendants can now hand over their firearms to local police departments or give them to a third party to hold onto while the PFA order is active. Those changes extend the process longer and longer every time the law changes, Smith said — and sometimes, these civil processes require deputies to visit multiple times to be able to catch a defendant when they are home.
Although the starting pay increase has resolved much of the staffing problems at Dauphin County, Chimienti said it is not yet enough to keep up with the office’s workload. He still has 16 unfilled part-time positions he would like to eventually see merged into full time positions so he can hire more deputies.
Additionally, the sheriff’s office is looking at another pay bump to $28.18 an hour after its current union contract expires in 2025, he said. Similarly, Cumberland County’s deputies will earn $26.78 in 2026.
“I gotta give credit to these kids who step up and go into a profession nobody wants to do anymore,” Chimienti said. “When we swear them in, it makes me feel like I did those years ago going into state police.”
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