CLAYTON, Mo. — St. Louis County police officers are quitting the force in what may be unprecedented numbers, leaving commanders scrambling to fill vacancies.
The region’s largest department, in St. Louis, has long seen an even higher rate of departures. But it’s a new and alarming phenomenon in the county force, the second-largest, which is accustomed to more stability.
And the loss of trained people comes as both agencies face major increases in reported crime, and their chiefs seek significant increases in staffing.
County officers don’t have to explain their resignations. But since 2010, about half have blamed pay, officials said. There was no indication that anti-police sentiments following the Ferguson police shooting of Michael Brown last summer had a significant effect.
Informally, it appears that many choose private security-oriented jobs or better-compensated positions with federal law enforcement over higher-paid local police forces, according to Sgt. Brian Schellman, spokesman for the county police.
That agency, with an authorized strength of 857 officers, lost 34 last year, about 4 percent. Chief Jon Belmar said that’s twice the rate from 2013. And this year is on track to be worse.
“That was the worst year of attrition I’ve ever seen,” Belmar recently told the county police board.
The city police, with about 1,250 officers, loses about two to three each biweekly pay period, Chief Sam Dotson said. That would average about 65 a year, or more than 5 percent. Dotson said that’s been a long-term trend.
Filling vacancies has not been easy. Nationally, various reports speculate that potential recruits are turned off by heightened criticism of police conduct, and turn instead to private sector security or the military.
In the city, Dotson said the academy class that began in October had 35 recruits. The one that started in April had 25.
He moved a sergeant into the department’s recruitment section and another to assist with a recent pledge by Mayor Francis Slay to give the Ethical Society of Police $50,000 to help recruit minorities.
“I have to overcome the seven-year residency requirement and a lagging starting salary, so I have to be active and that’s why I moved those people into those jobs,” Dotson said. “Our recruitment activities have to be much more active and engaging.”
A recent move to improve recruitment in the county may have made the retention problem there worse.
In January, the County Council granted real raises — not just cost-of-living adjustments — to the entire force for the first time in years. Sergeants and police officers got 7 percent; higher ranks got 10 percent raises. The chief and deputy police chief got raises separately.
The council gave even more to starting patrol officers, raising the annual salary to about $48,000 from about $43,000. Officials said that created a “compression” effect that meant a rookie could earn as much as an officer with seven or eight years of experience.
Approving raises “was a very nice step in the right direction,” Belmar told the police board, but, “We now have 400-plus officers with between zero and 12 years on the force whose salaries are compressed.”
He said he hoped the added pay would “slow the exodus to other police departments.”
But the hemorrhaging hasn’t stopped.
About 14 officers have resigned in the first quarter. Should the pace continue, the force is on track to lose about 56 officers this year, or almost 7 percent of its force.
Despite the manpower shortages, Belmar assured the board that the department is still delivering quality services.
But increases in crime have prompted Belmar and Dotson to ask for more officers.
In the city, where crime was up by about 22 percent over last year through March, Dotson is asking for 180 officers over the authorized strength.
In the county, where crime was up about 17 percent through February, Belmar wants an additional 120.