Asheville City Council

Asheville Police Chief Bill Hogan is in a tough spot — he can’t grow his department as fast as some City Council members want him to. Hogan took center stage at Council’s Oct. 18 work session, briefing Council members on the status of his department.

Assistant City Manager Jeff Richardson had invited Hogan to make his presentation, in response to discussion at the Oct. 12 formal session that the city has a police shortage, Hogan told Xpress. During a public hearing on a potential affordable-housing project in West Asheville, both Council member Joe Dunn and Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower voiced concerns about crime in the vicinity of the proposed development. “We don’t have enough police officers,” Dunn declared. Dunn, who’s running for mayor, said at a League of Women Voters candidate forum last month that the APD is understaffed by 29 officers. Some local media outlets have also reported on the charge.

But determining whether the department is understaffed or simply experiencing normal personnel fluctuations proved to be no easy matter.

Hogan began by saying that his department needs 14 more officers to meet his staffing goal of 190. But that number, he added, reflects funding increases voted by city council over the past two years. Some of the money is in response to annexations (which expand both the size and population of the city — and thus the APD’s work load). But in this year’s budget, Council also authorized hiring five more officers to combat the drug trade. Together, those actions added 14 staff positions to the department’s budget.

Hogan then gave a breakdown of staffing changes that have occurred over the past year. In a nutshell, the force has lost 31 officers and hired 28. The officers who left the department did so for a variety of reasons: Seven retired, seven left to take jobs with other law-enforcement agencies, five were terminated for cause, five resigned to pursue other interests, and four cadets were unable to complete their training. The APD’s average attrition rate is below the state averagae of 14 percent, said Hogan

But the chief did not directly address the fact that even though he’d experienced a net loss of only two officers, he still had 14 vacancies to fill — a vacuum created mostly by Council mandates. In fact, when Council members began asking questions of the chief, the numbers they cited often reflected their own conflicting opinions on the staffing situation.

Half full or half empty?

Council member Holly Jones thanked Hogan for his presentation, saying the “numbers are encouraging — not perfect, but encouraging. There’s only 14 vacancies.”

Dunn, however, noted: “We’re missing 29 on the street, right?”

Hogan then explained that he’d included in his staff tally 15 cadets who are on the city payroll while in training at the police academy). Under Hogan, the APD has begun paying cadets while they’re in training as a recruiting tool, he told Council, because it can be a burden to hold down a job while attending the academy.

“Officers in the academy are not on the street,” Dunn replied with furrowed brow.

But hiring police officers is a time-consuming endeavor, said Hogan, noting that the APD is “suffering the same challenges most municipalities are facing.” Competition for recruits, he said, is “dog-eat-dog.”

Police departments nationwide are feeling the effects as the baby boomers begin to hit retirement age. When he first started working in law enforcement 30 years ago, “500 people might apply for 15 positions,” Hogan later told Xpress. “Today, it’s not that way.” He attributed the shift to a combination of factors, including the job’s high stress level and the fact that as hiring standards have been raised, the pool of qualified applicants has shrunk. Further complicating things, he noted, is stiff competition among departments. The Seattle Police Department, said Hogan, has run newspaper ads in Raleigh seeking experienced officers. “It’s not unique to Asheville — it’s a nationwide challenge,” he observed.

But the chief emphasized that he doesn’t “want citizens to be frightful or fearful,” noting that his department “is responding to critical calls.” The impact, he added, is being felt in the way his officers are managing their time on the street. Under the APD’s “community policing” model, officers are expected to spend two hours should be spent patrolling problem areas, setting up speed traps and taking other proactive steps to deter crime for every hour spent responding to calls. At the current staffing level, said Hogan, that 2-1 ratio has fallen to 1.5-1.

“A lot of fear out there”

The chief also outlined the steps his department is taking to find new recruits. “The challenge is recruiting without lowering the bar,” he told Council. The first step was to appoint a sworn officer to serve exclusively as a recruitment-and-retention specialist. That position, formerly held by a civilian, had been vacant for two-and-a-half years when Hogan came on board as police chief 16 months ago. Having a rank-and-file officer in the position, Hogan told Xpress, enables potential applicants to learn about the job from a veteran law-enforcement professional who has “walked in their shoes.”

The APD also now has links to 20 employment-related Web sites and is streamlining the application process so that out-of-town recruits need make only two visits to the city during the hiring process. And because the city now requires applicants to hold an associate’s degree, the department, is exploring the option of offering scholarships for low-income residents considering a law-enforcement career, noted Hogan.

Council members seemed generally agreeable to the plan, though Mumpower and Dunn reiterated their concerns. “We’ve decided we want to do more than react to crime,” said Mumpower. “We want to be proactive to stop the bad guys.” And a frustrated-looking Dunn wondered aloud, “Why are we just now realizing about incentives?”

Jones, too, seemed frustrated, but she directed her comment at her colleagues, saying: “We created these new positions. How did we get so low? We’re the reason!”

One of the last observations came from Council member Terry Bellamy, who’s also running for mayor. Shaking her head, Bellamy frowned and said, “I wish this was on TV; there’s a lot of fear out there about shortages.” Then, turning to the chief, she added: “You’re doing your job. It’s unfortunate this isn’t on TV.”

After further discussion, City Council agreed to ask Public Information Officer Lauren Bradley to prepare a briefing based on Hogan’s presentation that will be broadcast on the government channel.

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