The national trend of police-officer shortage is also noticed in smaller cities near Austin, such as Lakeway, West Lake Hills, Rollingwood and Bee Cave, area law enforcement officials said.
Administrative matters such as background checks, employment history, medical history and written and physical exams eliminate a lot of applicants. For some of the small-town divisions, the biggest struggle is staying competitive with salaries and benefits.
Each municipality is authorized for a certain number of officers to be considered fully staff. While Rollingwood and Lakeway are currently both fully staffed, other departments continue to have openings.
The Bee Cave Police Department is authorized to have 19 officers, and the department is currently staffed at 17, Police Chief Gary Miller said.
Finding quality applicants in a tight job market is a challenge, Miller said. He said Bee Cave has had two open positions for a few months, and the department has not been at full strength since December 2017.
“It’s a competitive market,” Miller said. “Understanding the cost of housing in Bee Cave makes it difficult for officers to live here, so most of our officers live in and around the Austin or Kyle area. To get to work, they drive past a half-dozen departments who pay equal or higher, so we are at a competitive disadvantage when trying to recruit.”
To try and stay competitive with other departments, Miller said the department’s priority request for next fiscal year budget is an increase on the starting salary.
Starting salary for a Bee Cave police officer is about $41,500. Miller is proposing a 10 percent increase, which would bring it up to about $45,600, which is closer to what Lakeway officers make —$48,660 annually and up to $49,390 after completing the probationary period.
“Bee Cave is a supportive community and our officers are exposed to a wide variety of activity, but we have to market ourselves better and stay competitive in every way to compete for the quality of officers we want to work in Bee Cave,” Miller said.
In the meantime, Miller said the department is doing everything it can to make up for the deficiency. The department operates as a 24/7 agency, so to make up for the shortage, Miller said he has officers work overtime, which is costing the city money on its overtime budget.
“It’s challenging, especially during this time of year, when officers are taking vacation,” Miller said. “I have to work officers on their days off to fill the shifts.”
West Lake Hills Police Chief Scott Gerdes said his department is facing a similar issue.
Having sixteen officers is considered fully staffed. The department is operating with 13 officers, following the hire of a new lieutenant, who was sworn in at the July 25 meeting, Gerdes said.
A starting officer in West Lake Hills makes a little over $51,000 a year, increasing to $53,976 after the probationary period, Gerdes said. The officer is also given a uniform allowance but is required to come on board with their own equipment.
Gerdes said he is looking to change that provision to avoid discouraging recruits. He said his biggest change is increasing the pay grade for applicants with previous experience.
“For applicants who show to have previous service with an agency, I am going to ask council to increase that salary so that those officers come in a step above the minimum starting salary,” Gerdes said.
Gerdes said the department makes do with the staffing it has. There are two shifts available per day, and each officer is assigned to a 12-hour shift. The Travis County sheriff’s office and other area agencies help when needed.
However, Rollingwood Police Chief Max Westbrook feels that pay is not a huge motivator for most applicants. He believes the appeal to work for the larger agencies is that it gives applicants options to do different things — or, alternatively, the chance to focus on just one goal, such as being part of SWAT or becoming an investigator.
With a smaller agency, officers do get to do a little bit of everything, but the focus is on community friendliness. For some agencies, this allows them to be selective about the officers they are hiring.
“Small community officers come to be well-known, so we are pretty selective about the officers we are hiring,” Miller said.
Lakeway Police Chief Todd Radford said it can be also difficult to find quality candidates that fit the mold of each department and who are fully prepared to take on this job.
“It can be challenging because millennials value time off,” Radford said. “That work-life balance conversation is very real. This job is not for everyone. It’s a full-time lifestyle.”