With a retirement this week there are currently 89 officers in Anniston, seven short of a full force of 96. But in reality there are even fewer officers available for patrol, said Lt. Allen George. Seven of those 89 officers just signed up for the force and haven’t even gone through the academy, while another four are still training and not on patrol.
But retirement looks like it might be taking an even bigger chunk out of the staffing at the department. George said in the last six months, three officers have retired, and at least two more, including Chief Layton McGrady, plan on retirement in the next six months as well. Four more officers will become eligible for retirement during that time.
The departure of so many experienced veterans means a gap between young and old officers at the department is developing, McGrady said. Currently, there are 20 officers with more than 20 years of service, many of whom will retire soon. There are 10 officers with 10 to 20 years of service. The rest have less than10 years of service.
“We haven’t hired anybody in years that plans on retiring from here,” said Anniston police Capt. Shane Denham. “Now everyone just plans to put in their two years and leave. One guy actually just bought out of his two-year contract before it was up. Officers used to start at APD and plan to work there for life.”
That temporary approach to employment may be a reflection of changing times in law enforcement in general, George said. Before entering the police academy 25 years ago, George recalled more than 250 people taking the officer’s test with him. When he administered the test to applicants earlier this year, the turnout was about 30 people, he said.
Chief McGrady said there are different reasons why people leave the force, not least among them the stress of the job. But a lot of officers are actually going to other departments, he said.
“Officers are leaving all the time — here lately they’ve left to go to Heflin, Rainbow City, Attala,” McGrady said. “The bad thing is it runs us a little less than $4,000 to send them to the academy.”
As George told the Anniston Housing Authority at a board meeting last week, “it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
How much worse it can get, though, is a concern. George said in his 19 years at the Police Department, he can only recall one time when the force numbers were so low that only five officers would patrol at night.
“At that point it becomes a safety concern,” George said, noting the department had to cut “non-essential services” to keep officers patrolling the streets.
But numbers are already reaching that low, Denham said. On average right now, seven officers are on duty at any given time, he said, but that number can sometimes be as low as five.
The reason for the recruiting and retention problem isn’t much of a mystery, McGrady said.
“They look around and they think, ‘I got to do what for $29,000 a year?’ ” he said.
Officially, the starting salary for a police officer in Anniston is $28,391. Compare that to Oxford, a city with a similar population, but that hires far fewer officers. Currently Oxford’s police force consists of 48 officers, but the starting salary is closer to $33,000.
But George said cutting back the size of Anniston’s force to pay remaining officers more isn’t really an option for a city that’s already feeling a strain due to a smaller-than-ideal force. Asked if increasing the length of employment contracts for new officers would help keep them around, Denham dismissed the notion. The only realistic way to fix the situation, he said, is to increase the pay for the job.
With newly elected city officials, George said it’s going to be a priority for the department to see if there’s a way to make increased pay a reality.
“We’re always optimistic,” George said. “It’s something that will need to be addressed.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.
Star staff writer Cameron Steele contributed reporting to this story.