'I don't think they're safe': Veteran Raleigh officer feels public at risk with police shortage
While WRAL Investigates has found calls for change in policing have had minimal impact on local law enforcement budgets, they are having an impact on the daily roll call in some local departments.Posted — Updated
"I don’t think the public knows how much their safety is at risk and how much our safety is at risk," a veteran Raleigh police officer said about the shortage of officers. "It’s more a problem now than ever, and I also couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do everything I possibly could to let the public know I don’t think they’re safe."
According to the officer, who asked not to be identified, Raleigh's nearly half-million residents are short of police on patrol on an average day. Roll call printouts obtained by WRAL Investigates bear that out, with yellow lines marking daily vacancies for districts across the city.
While the Raleigh Police Department cites a 16 percent vacancy rate, the officer says it’s closer to 26 percent for those actually able to respond to most calls.
Through a public records request, WRAL Investigates found the department's vacancy rate for sworn officers was higher in June than at any point in the past 18 months. That figure doesn’t focus on officers assigned to respond to daily calls for help. WRAL asked for more detailed information on patrol officers, but after more than a week, the department hasn't provided any information on those specific numbers.
Rick Armstrong, a union representative for Raleigh officers, called the shortages "an ongoing problem that's only going to get worse."
Lee Turner, a Raleigh attorney who's a former police officer, said even he's aware of the staffing issues in the police department.
"I can tell you that, knowing what I know and hearing from officers, that if you have a serious incident and it’s a busy night in the police department, you may not be safe," Turner said. "If they’re spread too thin, then their safety’s always at issue, and I hear the stories about, 'We only had three guys in the Northeast District this morning.'"
"You’re on your own, potentially," the Raleigh officer said when asked what people should expect when they call 911 during a busy night.
Interim Police Chief Todd Jordan vehemently disagreed with that assessment.
"I do not think this is an unsafe community," Jordan said. "I think that, even when we see a peak at call times and call volume, we are able to respond to the very most important calls."
Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin agreed, noting that the city added $5 million to the police budget this year to boost community policing efforts, as well as police retirement funds.
"We still have enough officers to respond to calls. Nobody is calling 911 and not getting a response," Baldwin said.
Jordan acknowledged "staffing challenges," but he said department officials meet regularly to determine how best to allocate resources.
"This is a national conversation. I think we’re seeing cities all across the nation that are experiencing staffing shortages," he said.
The Cary Police Department and Wake County Sheriff’s Office also have patrol vacancies, according to responses to records requests. The Fayetteville Police Department didn't respond to a request for staffing details.
In Raleigh, the officer said, the department glosses over the shortage by counting officers as active even before they finish the training academy.
"We’re counting them as bodies. That’s grossly inaccurate," he said.
The city provided the number of sworn officers, as well as the number of recruits, in response to the public records request, but WRAL didn’t ask for information on incoming officers.
Also, new hires to fill the gaps are often offset by retirements or officers heading to nearby agencies.
"Officers are not leaving because of money right now," the officer said. "They’re leaving because they don’t feel supported by our command staff."
Jordan said officials recognize the challenges of working in law enforcement, which has been under a spotlight because of high-profile incidents like the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minnesota and the fatal shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. by Pasquotank County deputies in Elizabeth City.
"Officer wellness and safety is always an utmost for us," Jordan said.
"Let’s face it, 2020 was a tough year for our police," Baldwin said. "Is there some PTSD after that? Sure, but I think that our police department knows that we have supported them."
Still, the Raleigh officer argues that some changes have gone too far, chasing good officers from the force. He cited small changes that could make a difference in officers' morale, like easing the policies on unoffensive tattoos and profanity when the public isn’t around.
"They’re sitting by themselves in their car or they sit with another officer, and they go, 'Holy whatever,' and then we review the video, and they get written up," he said.
"I can’t do the things I’m trained to do because I don’t have enough people," he said. "That’s unfortunate because Raleigh citizens deserve better. ... They pay a lot of [tax] money, and they deserve a department that can respond."
Armstrong, the union representative, said he's optimistic that Patterson will site down with officers "and make substantial changes to retention and recruitment."
Baldwin noted Patterson brings a track record of recruiting success from her time at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, where she most recently was deputy chief.
"She knows that one of her top priorities here is recruiting new officers," the mayor said. "We are looking for good, quality officers – people who care about our community."
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