Local law enforcement agencies in Iowa are experiencing dangerously low staffing levels while struggling to retain and recruit new officers.
Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson said that his staff is overworked and exhausted after a 20% reduction in his jail staff.
“I presently have staff who work overtime every other day, multiple shifts per week,” Thompson wrote in a letter to the county Board of Supervisors in which he asked for pay raises to keep his deputies from finding better-paying and easier work elsewhere. “They are tired. They are overworked. … We’ve reached the breaking point.”
According to an article in The Courier, Thompson told the Board of Supervisors in early August that “dramatic action” was needed to ensure adequate staffing to control inmates and protect the streets.
The Waterloo Police Department faces the same problem. Police Captain Dave Mohlis told the Waterloo City Council that officers are on recall and working overtime — often working 16-hour days.
“We have approximately 10 openings on the department, and we’re trying to fill those,” Mohlis said, adding that the department was struggling to hire new officers and get them on active duty.
The department recently acquired five new candidates, but they must complete the 10-month law enforcement academy training before starting work, which forces current officers to work overtime for a year.
“We’re going to run out of overtime expenses — plain and simple,” Councilmember Dave Boesen cautioned.
Law enforcement overtime expenses have increased throughout the state. According to Axios Des Moines, the capital city’s police were paid $166,000 in overtime just for the month of June.
Law enforcement leaders say the hiring problem is exacerbated by the pandemic and a stagnant state population, as well as low morale due to the anti-police protests and rhetoric following the killing of George Floyd.
“It’s not a fun time to be in law enforcement. It’s not an easy time to be in law enforcement right now,” Thompson said. “The job is less rewarding now, too. We’re less apt to fight when they feel less appreciated and enabled and supported.”
Meanwhile, Cedar Falls Public Safety Director Jeff Olson said that while retention is not a problem for his agency, the amount of applicants is down by half.
“It’s due to some of the national events that have occurred here in the last few years,” he said.
Olson’s department is considering offering more incentives for applicants.
“The applicant pool is definitely lower, so we’re keeping an eye on that,” he said.
In North Iowa, local police departments are competing with one another to attract talent. For example, Mason City recently approved wage increases and contract extension bonuses for its police department. Now, nearby Charles City will likely follow suit in order to stay competitive on the hiring market.
In addition, Mason City expanded its hiring requirements so that residents within 30 miles are eligible. This area overlaps with Charles City.
“There’s potential for us as far as losing some good certified officers,” Charles City Administrator Steve Diers said of Mason City’s new employment requirements. “I think we have some officers who are interested in applying in Mason City.”
The Charles City Council is considering increasing the hourly wage across the board by $2 for all officers, a signing bonus of $5,000 and a week of vacation upon hire.
“We can’t compete dollar for dollar, but with some changes we might be able to retain more officers and recruit more officers too,” Diers added.