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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Fairfax County Public School students get onto a bus (via FCPS)

Over a month into the current school year, Fairfax County Public Schools is grappling with two key issues: how to recruit and retain staff, especially in special education and transportation, and how to feed students.

FCPS officials have said shortages in those areas are affecting the rest of the country, while supply chain issues have resulted in more students getting fewer choices to pick from in school cafeterias, thanks in part to free meals becoming available to all students.

When it comes to staff retention, the Fairfax County School Board approved some immediate relief at its regular meeting on Thursday (Sept. 23), increasing seasoned bus drivers’ salaries by 2.5%. The change will show up in their paychecks starting Oct. 23.

The change excludes new bus drivers who got a pay boost in August when the board voted to increase starting hourly rates from $19.58 to $22.91.

“Attract is one thing, but retain is something altogether different,” Springfield District Representative Laura Jane Cohen said.

In consultation with stakeholders, FCPS is conducting an in-depth market compensation study that it plans to finish by the end of the school year. The need to retain experienced bus drivers will only grow in urgency, as 25% will become eligible to retire.

FCPS also offers a $3,000 signing bonus, and Superintendent Scott Brabrand said the changes have boosted applications from about five to seven per week to an additional 20-50 each week.

Meanwhile, as of Sept. 15, FCPS had 133 teaching vacancies, nearly half of them in special education, according to Karen Corbett-Sanders, the school board’s Mount Vernon District representative.

Brabrand has suggested that state requirements for special education teachers need to be adjusted to ease the process for existing teachers, saying Thursday that he plans to bring the school board more information later to help its advocacy efforts.

School systems nationwide have reported bus driver deficits as potential hires turn to higher-paying commercial jobs, among other factors.

However, the commercial driving sector is experiencing labor shortages of its own, which are colliding with supply chain disruptions and increased student demand to create problems in school cafeterias.

In its annual “Opening of Schools” report, FCPS says it is now serving some 138,000 students per day — about 28,000 more than before the pandemic. Brabrand reported on Thursday that the school system distributed a record number of meals the previous week, when 150,000 students used its food services.

Mason District School Board Representative Ricardy Anderson noted that families have raised concerns and wondered about the quality of the food. Department of Financial Services Assistant Superintendent Leigh Burden said the issues have affected the number of the options available to students, but not the quality.

“We’ve had to double down on some of our oldies but goodies like pizza, which maybe doesn’t make students upset, but we want to continue to fully implement the food and nutrition health guidelines,” Brabrand said.

Anderson said knowing about the supply chain issues could help families better understand the situation that FCPS is facing.

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