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Fairfax County police grapple with understaffing, retention issues

The Fairfax County Police Department is grappling with high levels of understaffing and attrition, a problem that law enforcement officials warn could intensify in the coming months.

During a public safety committee with the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday (Oct. 26), officials said understaffing and retention are impacting the entire public safety sector, including the Fire and Rescue Department, 9/11 call centers, and the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office.

“The FCPD is experiencing an unparalleled level of staffing shortages within its workforce,” FCPD Capt. Rachel Levy said, adding that the issue could become “an insurmountable task” for the agency to overcome if left unaddressed.

FCPD has 144 vacancies in its 1,484 authorized sworn force — a vacancy rate of nearly 10%. Currently, some officers work voluntary overtime. Others are pulled from special positions like neighborhood patrols and community outreach to fill gaps in shifts.

That’s despite undertaking what Levy described as an “unprecedented effort” for recruitment. This year, the police department hosted 109 recruitment events and initiatives, up from 54 in 2018.

Board members acknowledged that the county needs to increase the applicant pool, attract a higher number of qualified candidates, streamline the hiring process, and increase retention.

The missing piece — compensation — remains unaddressed. Lee District Supervisor Rodney Lusk, who chairs the public safety committee, called lack of competitive pay the “elephant in the room.”

Deputy Chief of Police Bob Blakley said the police department needs to be able to compete aggressively with other police departments to attract every candidate considering a career in law enforcement.

He says FCPD needs to double the number of officers it hires every year and slow attrition by encouraging officers near the 25-year retirement mark to stay for a few more years.

Blakley pointed to a recent 15% pay increase instituted through a collective bargaining agreement by the Prince George’s County Police Department in Maryland as a good example of competitive pay.

“We will never be able to compete with organizations that are going to just leave us in the dust. And [if] we’re going to be the best, we need to be the best,” he said.

Lusk said the board will work with its budget and personnel committees to determine next steps, including whether compensation increases are warranted.

FCPD did not immediately share its pay scale.

The issue of understaffing was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to board chairman Jeff McKay.

“Already, people are thinking if they want to work the same way they did,” he said, adding that he supports collective hiring and pay increases for public safety personnel.

The police officer shortage in the United States predates recent calls to “defund” the police, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. In fact, staffing has declined for the past eight years, with 86% of departments across the country reporting a shortage last year.

While the pandemic and anti-police sentiment have intensified issues, the shortage stems from staffing boosts granted by the federal government between 1996 and 2002. Hundreds of those positions are now eligible for full retirement, though some were eliminated through attrition during the economic downturn between 2008 and 2012.

This year, 27 Fairfax County police officers are expected to retire. Next year, an additional 48 will become eligible. The number continues to climb each year with not enough new recruits to fill in shoes.

Applications for the county’s police academy are down from 4,121 in 2015 to 1,450 as of last year.

Unlike previous years, Blakley said some officers who have been in the force for years are leaving for other careers like information technology.

Lusk suggested the county could bolster public safety recruitment efforts by improving the online hiring process.

The county sheriff’s office is facing similar issues, prompting it to eliminate some work-release programs to free up staff for other services. Further reductions may be needed in the future, officials say.

“We just can’t keep up with departures,” said Major Tamara Gold, sheriff’s office assistant chief. The office loses some of its staff to the police department, which offers between 2.5% and 7.5% more pay.

The Department of Public Safety Communications has started aggressively recruiting at the high school level. The department’s priority is ensuring its 911 call center is fully staffed, Assistant Director Lorraine Fells-Danzer said.

Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity said legislation that he called “anti-law enforcement” — like the Police Civilian Review Panel  — is deterring people from becoming police officers.

“What I haven’t heard today is our plan…moving forward,” he said.

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