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Concord city council gives police half million dollar boost for officer retention

Dan Tuohy
/
NHPR

This story was originally produced by the Concord Monitor. NHPR is republishing it in partnership with the Granite State News Collaborative.

After approving $15.6 million for the Concord Police Department this year, the city will send an additional half-million dollars directly to officers in an attempt to address recruitment and retention issues.

The money, which was approved unanimously by Concord City Council last week, will be paid to officers in wages and overtime in hopes of slowing turnover within the department.

It's the latest boost to the department in recent years, including an extra $1 million to increase police base pay in 2020 and the addition of two new officer positions last year.

The funding brings the department's budgeted expenses over $16 million for the year, which does not include 31% contributions by the city to the New Hampshire Retirement System. Since the year 2000, the city has raised police spending by $3.4 million, a 27% increase.

While Concord city leaders praised the additional support for the department, the report to the council didn't spell out all the costs.

Because the retention money will be paid in the form of wages, the city will need to send an additional $158,000 in mandated contributions to the New Hampshire Retirement System, which was not mentioned by city administrators or councilors.

"This is probably one of the most important things we've done in a long time. What the men and women do for our police department, they are critical to ensuring safety in our community," said Mayor Jim Bouley. "We have an opportunity, we have an obligation, to support the folks that work for our community."

Currently, the department has 11 open positions out of 90 sworn officers, a vacancy rate of 12%. Last year, the city council approved adding two new officer positions at a time when vacancies were still prominent in the department. If those positions had not been added, the vacancy rate would be 10%.

Since January, 15 officers have left the department, either for new law enforcement jobs, a career change, resignations or retirements. The department has hired 13 officers in that time frame as well, although one did not pass required training, according to Deputy Chief Steve Smagula.

Ten officers are currently in training status, either in the New Hampshire Police Academy or the city's field training program. This means they are not allowed on solo patrol yet. Two officers are on extended leave status.

Including officers in training, those with injuries, and others on extended leave, total staffing levels are down by 30%, Smagula reported to the city council. In addition to the vacancies, applicant pools to hire new officers have become slim, the report continued.

The temporary retention program will reward current employees who are working overtime while the department is short-staffed in hopes of slowing the turnover rate, Smagula said. The program will be reevaluated after 90 days and will sunset "after the staffing crisis has subsided."

The police chief and three deputy chiefs will not receive any of the funds.

The city budgeted $15.6 million for police for the current fiscal year, which represents 30% of all city taxes. Of the additional $505,000 to be raised through taxes, $430,000 will go towards regular wage increases and $75,000 will boost overtime.

The funds will be "expended under the direction of the City Manager," according to the resolution.

Ward 10 City Councilor Zandra Rice Hawkins said the funding lacks clear direction and questioned the department's larger plan to address the staffing shortage.

Rice Hawkins voted in favor of the funding but introduced a motion for the department to file a report in six months that outlined the types of service calls received and recommendations on solutions if the department isn't able to retain staff even with the additional funding.

"This is not a problem that we are going to be able to outbid ourselves in the long run, so I think we would do best for the public safety and Concord to start to have those conversations now," said Rice Hawkins.

As officers are often called to address incidents with people in a mental health crisis, experiencing homelessness or dealing with substance abuse, Rice Hawkins suggested the city look at how other communities are rethinking public safety as police responsibilities shift.

Conversations about the evolving role of police officers and the background required for new hires in the department would be appropriate for the city's public safety board, but the group has not met in over a year, she said.

Rice Hawkins' motion failed after other councilors argued that officers do not need more responsibilities to burden an already slim staff.

"In a time where we have so few officers as a result of vacancies, now is not the time to be putting additional work on their plates," said Councilor At-Large Amanda Grady Sexton.

It's not the first time that Rice Hawkins has asked the council to reconsider how the city imagines public safety. In June of last year, she was the lone vote on the council against hiring two additional officers.

Instead, she argued that the funding could be spent by the city to examine crime prevention and public outreach measures.

In June, a social worker position for the police department was created in the city's budget which will help alleviate the responsibility for officers to address certain calls. Interviews to hire a candidate are underway.

With a six-month report from the department, Rice Hawkins argued that the city would have a better understanding of candidate requirements that could be beneficial to spell out in the hiring process.

Those conversations, and plans to fill department vacancies, are already happening behind the scenes in anticipation of the next city budget, said City Manager Tom Aspell.

Still, Rice Hawkins did not want to wait.

"For me, it's more of a preventive measure and being more proactive and having those options laid out for us as a community," she said.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visitcollaborativenh.org.

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