Harrisburg officials revealed tonight that low salaries and demanding work conditions have led to a “staggering” 58 percent attrition rate in the city’s police bureau over four years.
In a budget hearing at city hall tonight, Mayor Eric Papenfuse reported that of the 71 officers that Harrisburg Police Bureau hired since 2014, 41 have left the force.
The bureau’s current complement stands at 138 officers, according to chief information officer Gabriel Olivera.
Another 33 officers are eligible for retirement in 2020, which could leave the city with a staffing crisis if it can’t improve retention, Papenfuse said.
The bureau does conduct exit interviews with its outgoing officers. According to Deputy Chief Derric Moody, many of them are lured away from the city by the higher salaries and better benefits packages offered by neighboring townships.
Harrisburg’s police salaries start in the $40,000 range, he said, compared to $80,000 in townships on the West Shore.
Public safety Commissioner Thomas Carter said that the pace of police work in Harrisburg is demanding. The force fields 80,000 calls a year, he said, and low manpower across the department leaves little time between assignments.
Moody said most young officers who join the force are eager to learn valuable policing skills in an urban setting. But they also know they can command higher earnings in a different department.
“There’s a big difference between ‘What am I going to learn?’ and ‘What am I bringing home?’” Moody said. “For the size of our department, we can’t compete with smaller ones.”
City officials haven’t proposed increasing police salaries in the new budget cycle.
Moody said that the department does conduct local and regional recruitment efforts and is trying to bolster its ranks of minority officers. But he said that minority officers are in high demand in departments across the country, where leaders are also battling a growing lack of interest in the policing profession.
The bureau plans to host more events to drum up interest in policing careers among local youth, Moody said. He expects to see more officers in city schools in the new year, thanks to a growing community policing program led by community policing coordinator Blake Lynch and Corp. Josh Hammer.
“It’s still a fragile relationship, but these police are able to interact [with students],” Moody said. “It’s just one angle we’re looking at.”
Police leaders also hope that equipping their 90 uniformed patrol officers with body cameras in the new year will help improve public trust in the police force.
The 2019 budget includes a $150,000 allocation for body cameras and data storage equipment. That figure includes a $70,000 allocation in the 2018 budget that the department did not spend.
City officials hoped to launch the body camera program this year. Papenfuse reiterated tonight that the process of testing equipment and drafting a request for proposals (RFP) “took longer than we anticipated.”
The department is having its RFP reviewed by the city’s legal and IT departments, Papenfuse said, and will issue it to vendors by the end of the year.
The police bureau will also open its new substation in South Alison Hill in 2019. The modular station will be delivered to the station site on S. 15th Street this Thursday.
The substation will house the community policing officer, Papenfuse said, as well as officers assigned to the Alison Hill neighborhood from the evening to early morning hours.