N.C. Police Chiefs and Sheriffs Talk about Struggles with Vacancy Rates

May 23, 2024
Like their national counterparts, North Carolina police chiefs and sheriffs continue to face challenges when it comes to maintaining staffing levels that best serve communities' public safety needs.

Local law enforcement leaders are looking for more support to help them fill vacancies faster and keep more officers on the job.

Zebulon Police Chief Jacqui Boykin said her department has four vacancies.

“That doesn’t sound like a lot. But when you’re talking about a staff of 26, it’s a very big deal. A quarter of our patrol division is missing,” Boykin told reporters on Wednesday during a news conference at the Department of Justice building in downtown Raleigh.

“And we’re desperate to find people who are interested in serving their communities, who are interested in being a part of this noble profession.”

“But honestly, the recruitment pool is shallow,” Boykin added, “and anything that the legislature can do to help us improve our position, to grow that pool, would be a benefit to myself, a small agency, and in those agencies that are more rural in nature and don’t necessarily have the applicant pool that some of the larger ones do.”

Other police chiefs and sheriffs also talked about their vacancy rates during the news conference Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein held to talk about overall public safety needs.

Here are more takeaways from law enforcement.

Why do law enforcement staffing shortages matter?

Emergency response

Stein said he regularly hears about the struggles of chiefs and sheriffs to hire and retain officers.

“Responding to violent crime and drug trafficking is demanding work,” he said. Stein said vacancies put more of a burden on existing officers.

He said that especially with smaller law enforcement agencies, shortages mean that emergency calls are responded to slower.

Officer safety

Apex Police Chief Jason Armstrong said another factor in staffing shortages is officers “feeling safe and being out there on the streets. And one of the things that we regularly hear when officers are looking to leave departments, is because they may be working by themselves an awful lot, or they’re in a big rural area and their backup may be 20, 30, 40 minutes away.”

“You get into a fight, if you get into an altercation where your life is on the line, that is not an ideal situation to be in,” Armstrong said.

He said officers need to feel confident knowing that they have the support they need every night and day on the job.

Jail security

Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead said all agencies are “suffering from the staffing shortage.”

“At the Durham County Sheriff’s Office, in our detention center, right now we have 83 vacancies. We’re housing nearly 400 individuals in our facility. So it stands to reason that I need the appropriate staff and adequate staff to operate this facility in a safe and secure manner,” he said.

What are possible solutions to the recruitment and retention problem?

Incentives for out-of-state recruitment?

Birkhead said some solutions to the vacancies are better pay and “removing some of the barriers so that we can recruit from out of state and fill our vacancies.”

Armstrong said that the state could create more incentives to recruit law enforcement officers from out of state, including reducing hurdles that, for him, meant nearly 200 additional training hours even though he already had a 20-year law enforcement career, including as a police chief.

“North Carolina has a chance to send a message to future police officers that this is the state that you want to be in doing this profession,” Armstrong said.

Incentives for retired officers to work?

One recruiting solution Stein offered was to urge state lawmakers to pass House Bill 768, called “Law Enforcement Officer Return to Work from Retirement,” which allows retired officers to keep their retirement benefits even if they go back to work. The bill passed the House 118-0 in May 2023, but has not been taken up by the Senate.

Better pay?

Raleigh has one of the lowest salaries for starting officers, but the city manager’s proposed budget calls for increasing the starting pay and raising the pay of some officers by 10%.

Durham’s city manager has proposed increasing pay for new officers by 14% to $54,817 to help with recruitment and retention.

Financial aid?

Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood said the Criminal Justice Fellows Program, which forgives community college loans, is one way to help recruit.

Blackwood said that recruitment and retention “is not an issue that’s unique to North Carolina or to law enforcement.”

“I believe we can all agree that over the past five years, every facet of America’s workforce has been impacted. In short, time has changed; so, too, must be how we recruit our employees,” he said.

Blackwood said that in the past, he could count on new hires to stay 10 or 15 years, but “that is no longer the case. And we shouldn’t be surprised when they, in a few years, decide perhaps that law enforcement is not for them or they want to go to another agency or to a better paying job.”

What vacancies are agencies seeing around the Triangle?

Here is more data about Triangle police department vacancies:

  • The Orange County Sheriff’s Office has five openings right now, Blackwood said.
  • The Mebane Police Department has four vacancies out of 46 sworn officer positions.
  • The Durham County Sheriff’s Office has 10 law enforcement officer vacancies and another 83 in the jail, which is a 37% vacancy rate, Birkhead said.
  • The Apex Police Department has five vacancies.
  • The Raleigh Police Department has between 80 and 90 vacancies, or about 10% of the force.
  • The Durham Police Department is about 75% staffed, with more than 130 vacancies among sworn officers.

Reporters Mary Helen Moore and Anna Johnson contributed.


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