Police shortage makes for long hours

Beth Wilberding

With a growing mound of background checks of potential campus police officers decorating his desk, Maj. Jerry Phelps said his workload hasn’t been any heavier despite a police shortage.

Phelps is in the process of helping campus police hire five new officers.

“We’re getting closer,” Phelps said. “We’re doing some background checks now.”

Campus police are five officers short of the total they’d like to have. That has meant extra hours and more responsibility for those already on the job.

They have lost four officers to the Bowling Green Police Department and the sheriff’s office this year. The fifth officer was terminated for an undisclosed reason.

“It cuts into our manning potential,” Chief Robert Deane said. “We’re surviving, but we need initial coverage so if someone gets sick, it doesn’t hurt as much.”

Many of the officers have had to cover more shifts because of the shortage, he said.

“We have to work overtime for ball games, and sometimes we have to work overtime when an officer gets sick,” he said.

He said the shortage has also impacted campus police’s ability to give officers time off when they want it.

When an officer works overtime, campus police cover the overtime costs.

“Anytime we have to pay overtime, it affects our budget,” Deane said. “But we have to have people here twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, so we have to do it.”

But when an officer has to work a special event such as a basketball game, the group sponsoring it pays for his services.

Campus police took another hit to its manpower last May when it began investigating the murder of Pellville freshman Melissa “Katie” Autry in Poland Hall.

Officers worked on the case from May until August, a time when many officers take time off.

“It put an especially difficult strain on our working hours,” Deane said. “We were busy working on the murder case, and everybody was working overtime. It was a very difficult time for the department, and particularly the officers.”

Despite the current shortage, campus police is running smoothly.

“We’ve had pretty much good coverage the whole time,” Phelps said.

And things are looking up for campus police. They started interviewing possible new officers on Jan. 14.

“We had some very promising candidates, but it’s not complete yet,” Deane said.

Campus police’s shortage isn’t unique to Western.

“I can tell you that there is a shortage in different parts of the country,” said Horace Johnson, director of training operations for the Kentucky Department of Criminal Justice Training in Richmond.

Johnson, a former campus police chief at Western, said one reason campuses have such a hard time keeping officers is because of the salaries.

“People want to be in agencies or employments with better benefits,” he said.

Gene Tice, vice president of Student Affairs and campus services, said campus police offer a competitive insurance package.

“Those that have left have left for higher salaries,” Tice said.

But Phelps said officers leave for other reasons besides salaries.

“One police officer wanted to be a state police officer,” Phelps said. “There are probably thousands of reasons why someone would want to leave someplace.”

The starting salary at campus police is $23,309, plus the Kentucky Law Enforcement Foundation Program Fund bonus.

The KLEPF is an incentive for agencies to send their officers to training every year.

Even after new officers are hired, it will still be a while before they make rounds on the Hill.

Before the candidates are considered for interviews, they must complete the first half of a campus police-sponsored Peace Officer Physical Standard exam.

If the candidates pass the test, they are interviewed before a panel of both campus police and university officials.

After the interview, the candidates must go through another POPS exam required by the criminal justice training department . If they pass the POPS exam, they undergo psychological exams and a physical drug test.

When the trainees complete those tests, they are then assigned to an academy class that lasts 16 weeks. Once they complete the police academy, they come to Western, where they complete another 10 weeks of field training on campus.

Finally, the trainees spend a year on probation to see how they’re fitting in with campus police and how they’re catching on to the job.

It normally takes about 18 months for a campus police officer to complete the training and begin working on his own.

One concern to campus police is Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s proposed education budget cuts. But Western administrators have indicated that campus police will not be affected because campus safety and security is too important, Tice said.

“We’ll not cut the police station,” Tice said.

Campus police are prepared to deal with the shortage the best they can as they await the hire of the new officers, who they hope to have selected by the February training academy – though it could be March or later before officers are hired.

“We don’t want to sacrifice quality because we’re rushing,” Deane said.

Reach Beth Wilberding at [email protected]