Bismarck-area law enforcement agencies struggle to find, keep officers

2013-06-02T00:05:00Z Bismarck-area law enforcement agencies struggle to find, keep officersBy JENNY MICHAEL | Bismarck Tribune Bismarck Tribune

The Mandan Police Department has not been fully staffed since 2006, save for one month where every sworn position was filled. But an officer didn’t complete training successfully and the department went back to where it was before — scrambling to hire a new officer.

“We are constantly taking applications,” Chief Dennis Bullinger said. “We don’t close that, because you always want a list to work off if you can.”

In job-rich North Dakota, law enforcement agencies are facing an uphill battle in finding and keeping good officers. Departments in the growing Bismarck-Mandan community have to replace retiring officers, place officers who move on to new careers or new agencies and fill new positions in expanded departments, all with a shrinking pool of candidates.

The four local agencies — the Bismarck and Mandan police departments and Burleigh County and Morton County sheriffs’ departments — are in a consortium where job candidates take the same test, then can be chosen by the agencies. Burleigh County Sheriff Pat Heinert said he has received six applications for four open positions in the past month.

“We’re not getting as many applicants as we used to,” Bismarck Police Deputy Chief Dave Draovitch said. “The quality of candidates is not as good.”

Patrol officers in the two police departments and deputies in the two sheriffs’ departments can look to make similar amounts of money starting out. The four departments have varying ranks, making it difficult to compare salaries across the board. However, promotions in the Bismarck Police Department mean much larger pay increases than promotions in the other departments. The department also pays 100 percent of a family health insurance plan from the first day of employment and offers a pension plan.

Bismarck Police Lt. Mike McMerty explained that the department’s pension plan uses a “multiplier” to determine how much an officer gets in retirement. The system takes the officer’s years of service and multiplies them by 2.5 to determine the percentage of the average of the officer’s salary in his last three years of service that he will get. So an officer who has worked 30 years annually will get 75 percent of his last three year’s average salary. Officers can retire anytime after they turn 55.

McMerty has been with the police department since 1996. At that time, there was one testing day per year and more than 100 people would apply and test. A hiring list would be established for the next year. At that time, only about three officers per year left the department.

“If you weren’t in the top four or five, you ... wouldn’t be selected that year,” he said.

Now, the police department has interviews approximately four times a year. And it is “still not able to keep positions full,” McMerty said. Some people don’t show up for interviews. Approximately 25 percent of people who are hired won’t make it through the extensive training program, he said.

And the problems don’t stop once a new officer is out on patrol; keeping officers is an ongoing struggle.

Mandan losses

The Mandan Police Department has lost a significant number of officers to other departments, mainly the Bismarck Police Department. Bullinger can count 12 officers who have crossed the river since 1994. Five others have gone to the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation, two have gone to the Morton County Sheriff’s Department and two to the state Workforce Safety and Insurance agency. Others have joined other agencies in or out of state.

Bullinger jokes that when members of other departments visit, he escorts them to keep them from plying his officers away from him. Draovitch laughs when told that Bullinger implies Bismarck steals his officers.

“We kind of do,” Draovitch said.

However, McMerty said the department does not actively recruit members of other agencies, because he knows the investment that goes into getting an officer on the street.

“I’ve never personally gone to another department, because I know how tough it is to lose someone to another agency,” he said. The department “won’t turn someone down,” though.

Bullinger said there is no major turmoil within his department that causes the constant exodus. Instead, the reasons officers give for leaving are pretty predictable.

“It’s the pay and benefits,” he said.

Bismarck’s retirement package, in particular, is more attractive than its smaller neighbor’s.

Mandan offers a 401(k), where the city pays in 7 percent of an employee’s income and the employee must contribute at least 2 percent. Since many law enforcement jobs require stressful and physically taxing work, making it to the typical retirement age while still wearing a badge can be difficult. So they leave for departments with better plans or for new careers.

“In my 40 years here, I know of three people who retired at a retirement age,” Bullinger said.

He said his department would like to get on the state Public Employees Retirement System, where employees would qualify for the “rule of 85,” in which they can retire any time after their age and years of service equal or exceed 85. Mandan Police Deputy Chief Paul Leingang said besides Bismarck, which has its own pension plan, and Mandan, which offers a 401(k), the other two local law enforcement agencies in the Bismarck area are on PERS.

Lots of jobs

But benefits and pay are only part of the story. Low unemployment and a booming energy sector mean there are high-paying jobs that don’t require getting spit on and shot at by suspects. And some officers are moving in that direction.

Heinert said when some officers have been in law enforcement approximately five to eight years, they start to contemplate whether they want to spend the rest of their lives working shifts, weekends and holidays.

“That’s when it kind of becomes a true dedication,” he said.

It seems like a lot of people are looking for “a job, not a career,” McMerty said. People may change departments or leave law enforcement, never intending for it to last forever, he said.

“When I got into this job, I knew this was what I was going to do. This is where I’m going to work. I guess I’ve never thought about leaving. You don’t seem to see that as much,” he said.

Morton County Sheriff Dave Shipman said the 2011 deaths of Bismarck Police Sgt. Steve Kenner and Burleigh County Sheriff’s Deputy Bryan Sleeper seemed to have influenced some officers’ decisions. Kenner was shot and killed responding to a domestic disturbance, and Sleeper died of a heart attack after assisting another officer with an arrest.

The two deaths “opened up a lot of eyes around here,” Shipman said. “I think our job has always been dangerous, but I think it’s more dangerous now.”

Heinert is losing three, and possibly four, officers to energy-related jobs. The officers aren’t going to the oil fields, but they are taking jobs on the fringe of the industry — jobs that offer salaries and benefits of which law enforcement officers can only dream.

“That’s hard to compete with,” Heinert said.

Shipman lost two deputies to the oil fields. However, one came back fast enough to reclaim his old job and the other settled for a dispatcher job when he tired of life in western North Dakota.

Stressful jobs

McMerty said making sure the salaries and benefits offered in law enforcement are competitive with other industries in the state will be important. The city’s human resources department has always done a good job of that, but it’s going to continue to be more challenging given the higher paying, less stressful jobs available, he said.

Heinert and Shipman also run the jails for their counties, and finding people to take — and stay in — those jobs is even more difficult than finding qualified officers, they say.

“It’s hard to keep staff within the jail,” Shipman said. “It seems like we’re constantly looking for new employees in the jail.”

Correctional officers in Burleigh County make $36,192 to $54,267.20, and those in Morton County make $34,248 to $49,620. Shipman said the position is stressful, demanding and intense. During the winter, people working day shifts never see daylight. In Morton County, jailers have to cook meals and do laundry for 41 inmates. Shipman has added six correctional officer positions to the 10 that were there when he became sheriff, but he said the demands are increasing, too. Training takes at least two months.

The personnel responsible for keeping the departments staffed acknowledge the struggles aren’t going to end anytime soon. Bullinger worries that retirements in the coming years could leave much of his department with only a few years of experience.

But Heinert said the departments are strong and still staffed with good officers. They have maintained experienced officers in leadership positions. And the new hires who do put on a badge are more than capable of doing the job, he said.

“We’re losing good quality people, but we’re replacing them with good quality people,” Heinert said.

Reach Jenny Michael at 701-250-8225 or jenny.michael@bismarcktribune.com.

Copyright 2015 Bismarck Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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