During a workshop meeting Tuesday night, Killeen councilmembers, along with law enforcement officials discussed a nationwide issue of police retention that has unfortunately trickled into the Killeen Police Department.
Killeen Police Chief Charles Kimble, alongside the city’s Human Resource Director Eva Bark, spoke at length Tuesday with council about the issues that have contributed to a slow-down of fresh recruits joining the force.
“Retention is one of the most talked-about issues facing law enforcement,” Bark said during a presentation.
The numbers showed a hiring rate that wasn’t able to surpass the rate of officers set to retire. Kimble said there are a number of factors at play here: Pay, performance and even the thought process of young candidates.
ISSUES WITH PAY
Councilwoman Melissa Brown brought up the matter of retention when it comes to how the city pays its officers. While the pay looks competitive, Brown said a talk with police union officials revealed other financial aspects remain an issue.
“Only 10% of our overall police department loss seems to be due to pay,” Brown said, based off a review. “Pay is a concern, but it’s coupled with when you take the benefits into account. The pay is actually not bad given the area that we’re in, but then when you add the benefits, it takes so much out of that pay, which is when it becomes problematic.”
Kimble said often times, officers will leave for another department in a different jurisdiction because the pay fares better than here, but will still take up residency in Killeen.
“So people work here, and will drive to other nearby jurisdictions. They don’t mind driving 30 minutes. They enjoy the benefits they get in particular with the military, but they go to other places because they pay more,” Kimble said.
As for solutions, City Manager Kent Cagle said Tuesday the city is proposing a pay bump for officers for the 2022 budget, which was also reviewed during the workshop.
A police officer fresh out of the academy and brought onto the force will typically start off with a salary of nearly $54,000 annually, according to Cagle. The max salary for an officer who has spent nearly 20 years on the force is around $73,000.
For the pending 2022 budget, Cagle said the city is proposing to increase the starting pay rate for a Killeen officer to $60,000 annually, and upping the max salary for a more seasoned officer to $80,000 annually. Cagle said the salary bump could potentially help the department attract and retain new hires.
However, this is coupled with the internal intention of some recruits planning to leave within one to three years of being with the department. According to Bark, the second largest exodus of officers occurs during the first year and a half, during the academy or training field. Kimble emphasized the issue of training candidates only for them to leave for other departments, which is time and money on the city’s part.
“If you take in the officers’ salary, the benefits and then the amount of training. It’s very problematic,” Kimble said.
Brown had asked if there was a way to implement a payback program. Basically, if officers don’t stay with the force for a certain period of time, they are obligated to pay back some sort of fee for training. Kimble said when he first started back in 2017, he discussed the possibility of beginning a payback program to help retention, but he said even that’s a catch 22.
“It was really a catch and we’re still debating that right now. Do we offer something to where you pay back for training if you leave after an X amount of time?” Kimble stated. “It’s doable, but then on the flip side, how many candidates then will we not get because they may have other thoughts coming in like. ‘Hey I’m going to leave after 3-4 years,’ They may not even sign up. It’s still a catch.”
Kimble said, however, it has gotten to the point where he believes it’s a probable step, but he’d still have to work with human resources to find a balance.
HAVING WHAT IT TAKES
Kimble pulled some hard truths during the workshop, which pointed to performance being another issue of declining numbers in police retention.
“ The pool of good candidates is small,” Kimble said. “I’ve had to tell people rather bluntly that they don’t have what it takes.”
But Kimble also said making that decision is never easy, but the safety of the community is at hand when he does.
“Before I put an officer behind a car that goes really fast, give them the ability to make the decision of who lives or dies, the ability to take someone into custody ... A lot of people aren’t capable of that, and I have to tell them that they could get someone seriously hurt or killed,” Kimble said. “Some people don’t understand the demands.”
Bark also clarified a subcategory for why some leave the force. That category was labeled “Personal.”
“Often times when it’s labeled personal, they’re embarrassed. They say they didn’t make it,” Bark said
Sometimes, Kimble said, it boils down to a younger generation, and their thought process.
“We are hiring 20- to 21-year-olds that have a different thought process when it comes to drug use, for example. We don’t. At this point I’m not wavering on that.” Kimble said. “Background is also an issue. Drug use is a disqualifier.”
The hiring process was another point touched on during the discussion. Bark said hiring is based strictly on written test scores, which Cagle and council recognized as not the most effective method.
“Civil service, with the way we are structured, it is strictly on the test, so whoever gets the highest score on the test,” Bark said. “ The chiefs have an option to do a pass over if they have someone that’s a bit more qualified. That would be something that the chief would have to designate with the civil service director if he wants to do that.”
Brown asked if there was a way to hire based off of different methods such as a peer review panel.
Cagle said in previous years, the city had been in conversations with different groups to get a different method in place, but that was a year ago. Since then, nothing has been done, according to Cagle.
HUMAN RESOURCE ISSUES
Brown moved on to mention exit reviews, which are given to anyone exiting the organization. She mentioned she had received one from an officer that was “quite lengthy.”
“They have a lot of concerns that I think are valid and that I think def need to be addressed. Retaliation, whether perceived or whether it’s happening. ... With perception. there’s a lot of retaliation happening,” Brown said.
The councilwoman then asked Bark and Kimble if there was a process in handling retaliation claims in the department.
“We have a policy against retaliation and we’re really serious about it. So whenever we see that is happening, we try to intervene for that not to continue to happen.” Bark said. “The employees have a grievance process, so if they’re interested in filing a claim, they come to HR and give us the information and then from there, depending on what the grievance is about, if it is harassment, if it pertains to HR, we do an investigation into that particular thing.”
At the beginning of the meeting during public comment, Josh Wilkerson of the Texas Municipal Police Association said the president of the Killeen Police Employee Association, Officer Brian Pruitt filed a grievance with TMPA claiming he’s being retaliated against. Pruitt also claims the alleged retaliation has cost him a position in the training division and the investigations division.