PERU – Peru Police Department officials say they are facing a severe staffing shortage that has led some officers to work over 350 hours of overtime and 16-hour shifts just to keep the department open.
Police Chief Dan Sofianos told the City Council last week that the department is down four positions, which they are trying to fill. Another four officers are out for other reasons, leaving them short eight people. That equals an entire shift at the department, which is budgeted for 28 officers.
He said the current shortage started when three officers left last year around the same time. A few months later, another left and then two officers retired. At the beginning of the year, one more officer left, and then two were injured. Three more are off due to COVID.
Sofianos said that at one point, the shortage was so bad that only two or three officers were working second shift, which is scheduled to have seven officers.
The officers who have left ended up going to other area departments, such as Wabash, Logansport and Kokomo, which pay better than Peru, he said. That pay gap has also led to a sharp drop in the number of new officers applying.
Starting officers in Peru make $42,000 after the City Council last year approved a 6.5% pay raise. That’s still around $18,000 less than what Kokomo pays for a first-class patrolman, and substantially less than Wabash, Logansport and other area departments.
“We have to be competitive in the area, or we’re going to keep paying officers overtime and keep watching officers come and then keep watching them leave,” Sofianos said.
But Peru Mayor Miles Hewitt, who retired from the police department before being elected to his position, said the city only has so much money and approving
another pay raise would mean other city departments have less funding.
“These guys deserve more than what they’re getting,” he said. “The question is, do we take away from other departments? Where are we going to find the extra money to give them?”
Hewitt said the police department also offers much better insurance and benefits than other area departments and told recruitment officers to pitch that to applicants as a reason to go to Peru.
But Sofianos said younger people looking to become an officer mostly care about starting salaries, not insurance or benefits that don’t kick in sometimes for years.
“We don’t pay enough,” he said. “It’s not the environment. It’s not the equipment. It’s the pay. The pay has to go up.”
Officer Sam Finnegan, an administrator with the local Fraternal Order of Police, told the council the department has had a retention problem for years, but it’s only going to get worse if the city doesn’t do something to entice officers to stay.
He said six officers have already said they’re retiring in 2024 after 20 years, and another four might do the same.
“I can tell you, the department won’t be able to function,” he said. “You won’t have people to train the new officers coming in.”
Councilman Steve Anderson said the lack of staff has gotten so bad that it’s become a public safety issue. He said officers this year have worked around 1,700 hours of overtime, which cost the city $78,000. Some have worked 16 days straight, he said, as well as double shifts.
“That’s not safe for them to be in their squad cars,” Anderson said. “It’s not safe for them, and it’s not safe for the public.”
Finnegan told the council that more than anything, officers want to know the city has a long-term plan on how it will get more officers to apply, and then retain them in order to stop the staffing shortage that has plagued the city for decades.
“It’s been too long since we had plan,” he said.
“We know it can’t be changed overnight, but we need some direction. We need to know we’re supported, because we’re killing ourselves out there right now. It’s tough to come to work somedays.”
The struggle to recruit qualified officers intensified in 2019 when a new state law allowed police departments to hire from a 50-mile radius from city limits. The law previously only allowed departments to hire from inside the county, or from adjoining counties.
The new law means departments have to compete harder for officers, who now have many more options on where to apply.
The new law led Kokomo officials to issue a 20% pay increase over three years as part of a push to draw more applicants, including minority officers, to the department. By 2023, first-class patrolmen will earn $61,850.