Low wages affecting local police

Starting a shift as the only officer on duty is nothing new for Barnesville Police Chief Davis Norris.

His department has lost several officers during the last few years to either other agencies offering better pay or other industries such as coal or oil and gas.

“It’s pretty crippling when you get (an officer) that has some experience and you get them where they know the town and know the people, they know the bad guys and this is always important,” Norris said. “You get them to where they are really doing a great job and then they are picked up by another agency that pays a good bit more than what we pay.”

Norris has been dealing with this problem for a long time.

He will have an officer in his employ for a few months or even years, only to watch that officer be lured away by another agency.

According to Norris, just this year alone, he has lost three really good officers. Another problem has been finding applicants that will take the job for what it is paying.

“It is even getting hard to find the applicants that you really want,” Norris said. “(I always) try to find the right fit with the bunch (of officers) I have and to fit into this town and into the job we do. It takes a special personality and it is just getting harder to find those people.”

During the interview process, Norris said that he will come right out and tell the applicant what the pay is, which many applicants claim that they can’t take that much of a pay cut.

Trained newcomers looking to receive experience are harder to come by as well since the closing of the police academy in Belmont County left the one in Jefferson as the lone training center locally.

“It is getting harder to find (the right fit) because of the pay,” Norris said. “They would have probably been a good police officer had the pay been better. So I am thinking that if we get the pay where it should be, I could attract good applicants and I am sure I could keep more of the officers.”

Norris is not the only agency in Belmont County that has repeatedly faced this problem. Due to the lower wages, many officers enter a department to get experience and then move on to a more lucrative position.

Bellaire Police Chief Mike Kovalyk just informed village council at its Aug. 15 meeting that another officer had left for another agency. Another position, one that has sat vacant for a year, has yet to be filled.

“(The pay) depends on tax bases through the communities you live in,” Martins Ferry Police Chief John McFarland said, who has 14 full-time officers and nine part-time officers. “I know there are other communities in Belmont County that are the same size as Martins Ferry, if not smaller, that make more money. It just depends on what part of the state you live in.”

McFarland also added that one can not provide for his or her family on police wages alone.

It comes down to what a city or village can afford. Locally, most of the wages run from $10-12 per hour, depending on the full or part-time status of the officers.

“We are trying to be competitive so that we don’t have officers leaving all the time, but in the past, we have been a training department to where officers come, we train them and then they leave for a better paying job; which you can’t blame them for bettering themselves,” Bridgeport Police Chief Andy Klotz said. “But it has affected the years of service officers stay here. We did get a raise and we are suppose to be looking at another raise again, but with tight budgets it has to be taken into careful consideration by the village to be able to do that.”

Many departments had begun to relay heavily on part-time officers to fill in shifts. For a department to have a part-time officer at its disposal allows the full-time officers to investigate cases more thoroughly, without having to worry about covering the road.

“Usually, when you hire a part-timer on, they do have more than one commission and that’s just part-time because you really can’t guarantee them a certain amount of hours per week,” said Klotz, who currently has four full-time officers and eight part-time officers in his department. “(Part-time officers) are a big asset to the village so that we can have more officers on the road to be able to help protect the village.”

Many officers have chosen to move to another field of work completely, instead of continuing to protect and serve their communities. Some have decided to pursue a job in the gas and oil industry or in the coal mines.

“I would not be able to tell you (how many have left) just not even from my department. A lot of guys have gone to the coal mine and the gas and oil,” Klotz said. “With the tight budget it’s hard to have as many guys out on a shift as I would like to have.”

With these jobs attracting younger workers, police departments have seen less applicants come through their doors. The lack of pay that has caused many officers to leave for other agencies and jobs has made it harder for villages to find the man power the village needs and for the chiefs to cover shifts, let alone keep the officers in their department.

The lack of man power has caused other departments such as Martins Ferry, Bellaire and Bridgeport to work more closely together, which according to Klotz, which helps out tremendously.

Van Dyne may be reached at kvandyne@timesleaderonline.com