EASTON — Police departments across the country are dealing with staff shortages, and rural communities and small towns like those on the Eastern Shore are also facing operational challenges as they try to fill open positions.

Because of the shortage, the Easton Police Department has been forced to poach officers from other divisions, including bike patrol — a community policing service — just to meet minimum staffing for patrol shifts, which consists of four officers on each of his four patrols squads.

“It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said Sgt. Eric Kellner, the assistant patrol commander.

Kellner wondered why fewer people were applying to join the police force, particularly youth. It’s a question police departments are asking across the country as they face historic staff shortages.

But for Kellner, the elusiveness of the answer has frustrated him. He’s a veteran officer, as well as a fire department and EMS volunteer. Community service is everything to him.

Early in his policing career, there was one individual he had plenty of run-ins with. He was a troublemaker. So Kellner was surprised when, years later, the man showed up to Ridgely Volunteer Fire Department to enlist.

“I talked to him and said, ‘If you’re going to turn your life around, I’ll support you,’” Kellner said. “We’ve been friends ever since.”

Kellner said that story is what he is most “proud” of. It’s given him a sense of purpose as a police officer.

Easton Police Chief David Spencer said that sense of community work is missing among today’s youth — one of the many driving factors behind the swelling shortage of police officers in the country.

“Most police officers want to help, do something for their community,” he said, but community jobs and “volunteerism is down across the country. American Legions, fire departments, they are all struggling.”

The Easton Police Department has just 48 police officers now. That means they are short eight officers, which is one more hole than they had a couple months ago, when the shortage was seven. It’s a trend that is likely to get worse.

EPD once had 40 applicants before a biannual training class at the police academy in January. In 2020, they had about four applicants before that same January class.

“In today’s world, young people don’t want to be police officers,” said Spencer. “It’s not an easy job. You’re not going to get rich doing it, it’s physically and mentally demanding, you’re out there 24/7.”

Spencer frowned, saying, “sooner or later if this keeps going on, there will be more serious implications.”

A landmark 2019 report from the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) said the “police profession is facing a workforce crisis” on an unprecedented scale.

The researchers released a study showing 63% of responding agencies have seen a major decline in new applicants; around 15.5% of officers are close to retirement; and others are resigning from the force in record numbers — leading to a new low of police officers per capita. That ratio has decreased 10% since 1997.

Researchers believe the problem lies outside of normal hiring cycles, which tend to swing up and down based on the economy. Spencer called it the pendulum: when the economy is bad, more enlist in the police force for the secure income, pushing the pendulum down. When it’s good, the opposite happens, pushing it up. Lately the pendulum has been way up, with no signs of swinging back down, even with the economy in a tight spot during the pandemic.

PERF said police departments are still “soul-searching” in the modern age.

The research firm issued a dire warning in 2019, saying the profession needs to address diversity issues — police departments are still more than 70% White and about 86% male. Police also need to increase training to get higher quality candidates, as well as build up community relations.

If departments don’t work to address the workforce crisis, there could be serious public safety ramifications, the report concluded.

George Floyd was killed while in police custody on a Minneapolis sidewalk in 2020, which led to massive protests across the country and renewed outcries against police brutality. Cities across the country saw protests, unrest and some instances looting.

To many veteran officers, the negative perception of police that reignited in 2020 is worse than before; and that inflated narrative of the police as the enemy is dangerous for the future of policing, especially in rural communities.

Spencer said he lost two staff employees in 2020 who actually cited the reason they quit: the officers felt as if they were the enemies of the people.

That’s happening nationwide, including in Prince George’s County, where about a million people live. Will Milam, the vice president of Maryland’s Fraternal Order Police Lodge, said an increasing shortage of officers there is rapidly becoming dangerous, given the high population in the county. But it’s hard to fight against the narrative, he said.

“When you hear a narrative across the country that (police) can’t be trusted and we’re a bunch of thugs, it pushes people away from wanting to sign up for an already difficult job,” said Milam. “I do see the recruitment and retention problem persisting. I don’t know what the ultimate outcome will be in 15 or 20 years, but I can tell you that the officers who do this will continue to be heroes.”

Milam said departments have been struggling to recruit and retain for decades, but the trend started a serious downward spiral in 2010, a year after the death of Oscar Grant in Oakland, California, was captured on video. It got worse after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2013, and has continued on that path.

Protests against police brutality are nothing new, but they are increasingly being captured on video in the era of social media and cell phones, drawing national attention after every viral incident. As a result, police, including the good ones, are being vilified like they never have before.

While they are furious about what they call a “national narrative,” police officials are not naive. They know police have to be better.

“FOP has long been in favor of sensible police reforms,” said Milam, but he took issue with the “Defund the Police” outcries. He said reform has to be done in the right way, to strike a balance between justice and sensible, strong policing.

“I don’t know how you fix any problem by saying you are going to take resources away from it,” he continued. “We are a dynamic profession, dealing with citizens in most cases on their worst day. We’re constantly evolving to get better and we need to attract better quality candidates and increase wages rather than decrease.”

The Maryland General Assembly wants more serious reform this time around. The most impactful bill this session concerns the repeal of the Police Officer’s Bill of Rights. If repealed, it would throw police immunity out the door and open up officers to outside investigative action into misconduct.

Currently, police investigate themselves, though civilians can sit on the boards of investigatory committees. Maryland is one of 16 states to still have the Bill of Rights in place. A bill introduced in January would completely repeal that.

Spencer said he’s very worried about an eventual repeal of the 1974 Bill of Rights, saying it protects officers from malicious complaints and lawsuits.

“Police officer Bill of Rights can be tweaked but it shouldn’t be done away with,” he said. “If you lose qualified immunity, it will lead to a mass exodus.”

Milam said he “feels” as if the bill will pass this session in the Democratic state. Legislators are seeking real change.

On the Eastern Shore, cries for reform are quieter. The police receive broad support from the community, which was evident in the many “Back the Blue” rallies that sprouted up last year in response to the Black Lives Matter protests.

Sheriff Joe Gamble at the Talbot County Sheriff’s Office said one reason is because officers are encouraged to live in the community. Gamble offers incentives to his employees to move here.

Once inside the community, officers come to understand and respect the denizens. Gamble said that is lacking in cities like Baltimore, where officers living in predominantly white suburbs come to work in the predominantly African American city.

Though rural police are usually not the ones committing serious offenses, the consequences of incidents in U.S. cities like Baltimore — which erupted in protest in 2015 over the death of Freddie Gray in police custody — trickles down to police forces everywhere.

At the Sheriff’s Office, officers were resigning en masse before Gamble joined in 2016. The Sheriff’s Office had a 100% turnover rate, he said. Police officers that stayed in the profession flocked to the Western Shore, where pay and benefits are better.

“We lost 42 deputies in 12 years,” he said. “I went to the (Talbot) County Council and said, ‘Look at the numbers. The county lost $4 million in training and hiring.’ The cost to the county was astronomical.”

Gamble said he is stable right now after offering more competitive pay and benefits, but he continues to lose officers to other counties in Maryland — he lost two to Anne Arundel County last year.

But small town police departments are struggling the most as they compete with the western shore.

At EPD, Spencer is debating with the town council on a vacation and employee benefits overhaul, which could affect hiring and retention for the future. Officers stand to lose hourly accruals for vacation time if the resolution passes as amended.

Meanwhile, EPD continues to lose officers to the Western Shore or even to local county departments such as the Talbot County Sheriff’s Office. In 2020, 12 officers left EPD, either resigning during the police academy, switching to another police department or even running to other professions.

EPD offers $47,500 annual starting pay and a pension plan with 22 years of service until retirement, but they don’t have a system to give officers take-home cars or the state Law Enforcement Officers Pension System.

LEOPS allows members to contribute 7% of their annual compensation, making them eligible to retire upon accumulating 25 years of service, among a long list of other benefits.

Of course, counties on the Western Shore can offer that and more.

“Let’s be honest: we can’t compete with the Western Shore,” said Spencer. “We don’t have the tax base to do that.”

EPD receives 1,800 calls for service a month, and about 100 events to work annually. The department would be extraordinarily pushed to the limit right now if the pandemic hadn’t slowed a lot of crime and traffic here.

Response times to 911 calls is quickly becoming a national problem. Minneapolis is experiencing long delays in service calls after the city council voted to shift the police budget last year. Citizen patrols have sprouted up in the city in response.

It’s happening statewide too, said Milam from Maryland FOP.

“There’s a decrease in response times, while we’re seeing percentages rising in certain crimes and officers without sufficient backup,” he said. “All of those things are because of the shortage of manpower.”

Cambridge Police Department has eliminated its response time delays, dropping them back to under five minutes — but only after pushing officers into longer work shifts.

Cambridge is a city with a high volume of crime, with about 4,000 calls for service a month. Officers, once used to working nine-hour shifts, are now packing in 12-hour shifts and hours of overtime, just to ensure there is adequate backup for patrols.

“If you break that down, that is pretty taxing on that patrol officer. Those calls go from traffic stops all the way up to major, major crimes,” said Capt. Justin Todd, the public information officer at CPD. “It’s much more difficult now to keep those officers on the street.”

Departments such as Cambridge and Easton are in geographically smaller areas, so responding to calls is easier, but they still have to pull officers on longer shifts to meet minimum staffing requirements.

Spencer said it’s “wearing on (officers) mentally and physically” to do that.

Cambridge is struggling with competition too, but mostly from other departments on the Shore, including the Talbot County Sheriff’s Office. In recent years, the Sheriff’s Office has taken multiple officers from Cambridge interested in higher wages or more benefits that CPD can’t offer.

CPD is continuing to lose officers, with only 37 active ones — way down from 52 in 2010. About 25 officers are assigned to the patrol shift.

Since there’s a shortage, Cambridge officers can’t conduct community policing as they normally would, something CPD has traditionally prided itself on.

“Being able to get more (officers) here would allow us to do so much more for the community,” Todd said. “It’s key, being able to have that relationship with the community.”

Police say that is unfortunate because those community-oriented initiatives could actually help solve the sometimes strained relationship between minorities and police.

That ties into the omnipresent question for police departments: how do they attract a younger, more diverse population into a workforce that increasingly looks corrupt or abusive in the public eye, and less attractive in terms of pay and benefits?

That negative perception of police officers is hard to fight. Gamble said Americans “coming out of college and watching television” news are being pushed away from law enforcement because of the ongoing narrative.

“There is very little respect for police,” said Gamble. “I wouldn’t want to get into this job if I was 22 years old.”

Todd said CPD is “trying to look at those different ways” as well, pointing to Youtube videos from the department showcasing community work.

“Community policing is a big way of how we want to portray ourselves,” he added.

One other way is through citizen police academies, where citizens take classes to learn how police departments work and understand how officers think in dangerous situations or traffic stops. Todd said the citizen academy is needed now more than ever, but the pandemic canceled last year’s classes.

At EPD, a strong belief is that good police work is more pertinent today than it has been before. For those shouting out cries to “defund” or reform the police, Spencer said they need to enlist.

“If you think there is a problem with police work, then the solution is joining police work,” he explained. “You have a more positive impact on the inside than on the outside.”

Appealing to activists could work. PERF said departments can no longer rely on family lineage, in which police and military duty runs in the family. Departments will have to recalibrate messaging and fine-tune it in an effort to reach a new population.

While some rural communities have not seen higher volumes of crime during the pandemic, cities across the U.S. have seen tremendous spikes in violent crime since the summer of 2020.

It’s obvious that a shortage of officers will cause departments to struggle to respond to these increasing violent crimes, or overwork them to ensure public safety, police officials say.

Police officers are already asked to handle everything from homeless individuals and helping those struggling with their mental health to responding to domestic abuse situations and drug overdoses.

Spencer said officers are becoming “problem solvers” — society expects them to fix every issue and respond to any type of call. So officers spend 15 months attending both police academies and on-job supervision before they can patrol on their own, which also makes the process to fill in vacancies longer.

But the overall, more dire consequence is that police are handling everything from speeding tickets to fires, increasing their engagement with citizens during their worst moments and never their best. And officers do not want to stay in a profession where they have to handle all of this and be labeled as the enemies. PERF highlighted that 47% of police departments reported an officer’s average length of stay in the service had significantly decreased compared to five years ago.

The EPD has eight officers close to retirement. If a repeal of the Bill of Rights passes, or more protests erupt, Spencer doesn’t know if they will stay on staff; they’re already working a tough job, and adding more fuel to the fire will push them away, he said.

If the trend is going to change, officers will need to appeal to the next generation. It’s why Kellner, sitting at his desk, posed this question again: “What would make them interested in becoming a police officer?”

Spencer is banking on three recruits in the police academy, who he hopes are going to fill some open spots. But even if the new recruits make it through training, EPD would still be short five officers. A broader issue, the chief said, needs to be tackled.

“The shift in society is changing,” said Spencer. “And as law enforcement, we need to listen.”

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