The Chapel Hill Police Department is strapped for funds and understaffed, but the group won’t lower its hiring standards for anything.
The department currently has 104 sworn police officers, at least 18 officers short of being fully staffed.
“I guess the biggest obstacle is that it’s a lengthy process (to become an officer),” said Lt. Josh Mecimore, spokesman for the Chapel Hill Police Department .
Sworn officers must go through basic law enforcement training in North Carolina or have transferred from another state and meet North Carolina’s requirements.
The basic law enforcement training is a 620-hour, or a 6-month, class, typically taught at Durham Technical College for Chapel Hill officers.
Mecimore said police officers serving Chapel Hill must also complete an additional 4-6 weeklong lateral academy, which familiarizes them with local ordinances and the challenges of practicing law enforcement in a college town.
The police department will gain eight more officers if they all graduate from the police academy at the end of January.
Mecimore said potential officers must also pass rigorous tests to be eligible to apply for a position. Each potential officer must complete a mental and psychological exam, pass a drug test and take a polygraph test, he said.
Mecimore said competition in pay has also been a problem for the department.
After the economy dipped in 2008, the department could not increase its officers’ salaries to compensate for the increased cost of living in the town, Mecimore said.
Some other municipalities were able to offer raises, which became an incentive for police officers to leave Chapel Hill and join agencies elsewhere, he said.
Although the department could not offer these types of raises for a few years, the town was able to offer a raise last year to compensate for the increase in cost of living in Chapel Hill, Mecimore said.
Mecimore said the department hopes to attract more police officers when it opens applications for new hires in early 2014.
Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, which is under The National Institute of Justice, awards grants to local agencies to help fund hiring of new officers.
“We have seen a big need for more personnel,” said Corey Ray, a spokesman for the COPS program.
He said the program was created to help local law enforcement agencies overcome financial challenges in hiring police officers.
The hiring program, funded by Congress, is a four-year grant program. It provides salary and benefits for new hires for three years. The office then asks the local municipalities to fund the additional year.
“We hope it will go into their budgets eventually after four years and (they) won’t need COPS funding anymore,” Ray said.
The COPS office has awarded $256 million to agencies in North Carolina since it was created in 1994, Ray said.
The Chapel Hill Police Department has received $1.2 million, although most of these grants were awarded in the 1990s, he said. These grants funded 15 new law enforcement positions in the town.
Law enforcement agencies can apply for the grant between April and June, Ray said. The COPS office looks at the local financial situation, crime rate in the city and the community-policing plan when deciding where the grants will go, he said.
A study funded by the institute found that across the nation more than half of actively hiring agencies had difficulty finding enough qualified applicants to fill vacant positions.
Mecimore said Chapel Hill is no different than the rest of the country in a lack of qualified applicants. But the department chooses to be understaffed rather than hire an unqualified person, he said.
“We won’t just settle for filling positions,” Mecimore said. “We are going to hold those standards.”
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