It’s a scenario baseball fans recognize.

A small-market team selects a talented youngster, fully invests in training and watches as the prodigy becomes a prospect. When the season starts, the rookie joins the lineup, filling a vital spot on the team. Then the New York Yankees come calling, dangling more money and better perks than the small-market team can match.

Poof, the player – armed with the training needed to hit the ground running – is gone. The position is vacant, and the time, energy, effort and investment made is lost. 

The small team starts over, hoping for the best, but knowing deep-down the results could be the same.

In sports bars, this common Major League occurrence can cause beers to fill with tears. But when a similar series of events results in local communities losing law enforcement officers, the stakes are higher.

A common, growing problem

“I’d say that is a pretty good analogy of what we’re dealing with,” Cornelius Police Chief Bence Hoyle said referencing the big league comparison. “And we’re not alone. I can tell you it is a problem across the country.”

Hoyle’s reference to higher paying opportunities – either with other law enforcement agencies or private sector employers – making it difficult to establish and maintain a fully-staffed police force gets no argument from his counterparts in Davidson, Huntersville and Mooresville.

“It is a very serious issue for us,” Davidson Chief Penny Dunn said.

“It is something we are forced to deal with every day,” Huntersville Chief Cleveland Spruill said.

“We are aware of these issues, especially the private sector opportunities, and we know they present challenges for us and other departments,” Mooresville Chief Damon Williams said.

All of the chiefs said maintaining proper staffing is a priority. And a project announced recently by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) to fill 157 vacancies – at least 60 of them through a “lateral entry” process designed specifically to make it easy and financially rewarding for officers from other departments to transfer into comparable CMPD positions – promises to make the task tougher.

Huntersville in the crosshairs

“CMPD has openly stated they are out to fill positions with lateral transfers,” Spruill said. “And while I understand all departments in our area are coping with this, I believe we are more vulnerable because our guys are working right across the street.”

Spruill added that since his department uses the same dispatch and record-keeping system as CMPD, he believes his personnel are prime targets for the CMPD search.

“You could take a Huntersville police officer out of a Huntersville patrol car,” Spruill said, “and put him on duty in a CMPD car that same day.”

And with a police force of nearly 1,900 officers serving a population close to 900,000, CMPD’s pay scale is significantly higher than smaller, municipal departments can match.

“It can come down to a business decision,” Spruill said, “especially for younger officers just starting out, thinking about their families.”

A community-wide issue

Hoyle agreed, adding that officers in the first five years of service, which currently describes about 85 percent of his department, are most likely to consider a move, especially when there are no drawbacks.

“In North Carolina, there is no penalty associated with moving,” he said. “Theoretically, an officer could put in 30 years with 30 different departments and it would have no impact on their retirement.”

But when an officer leaves a department, the loss extends beyond the investment made in recruiting, hiring and training – a commitment Spruill said could involve $100,000 or more.

“There is local knowledge you can’t replace,” Hoyle said.

“Having officers visible and known in the community is very important,” Dunn said. “When someone leaves, you lose that connection.”

“It’s something you cannot immediately replace,” Williams said. “Officers get to know the areas they patrol, the people they see. That takes time.”

In preparing for transitions, all the chiefs said recruiting is a never-ending process, but even there, a problem is growing.

“It’s a case of demand exceeding supply,” Hoyle said, referencing a significant drop in the number of students pursuing law enforcement careers.

Hoyle and Spruill summed up the obstacles local departments are facing – fewer candidates, private sector jobs, limited budgets and higher-paying CMPD jobs just a few miles away – in the same way in separate conversations without knowing what the other said.

“It’s kind of a perfect storm of problems,” Hoyle said.

“A perfect storm, and not the good kind,” Spruill said later.

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