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Decatur police officer Jeff Bailey investigates an accident on Spring Avenue Southwest on Sunday.
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
Decatur police officer Jeff Bailey investigates an accident on Spring Avenue Southwest on Sunday.

Decatur looking for a few good officers
Police Department takes steps to fill thin ranks after operating 22 officers short

By Catherine Godbey
cgodbey@decaturdaily.com 340-2441

"The Andy Griffith Show." "Starsky & Hutch." "Miami Vice." "NYPD Blue." "Law & Order."

Every decade since 1960 new police dramas found popularity on the screen. Popularity of the dramatic police life suffered, however, in the transition from television to real life.

While "NYPD Blue" and "Law & Order" flourished, the Decatur Police Department struggled to attract qualified candidates. During the shortage, candidates applied for the open positions but failed to meet the department's standards.

The department, which is authorized to employ 130 officers, was operating 22 short until June, the worst deficiency Police Chief Ken Collier remembers. The shortage of officers affected the quality of service supplied in non-emergency situations.

"We were low on officers, running from call to call and weren't able to provide as good of service as we wanted to," Collier said.

To increase officer service, the department is taking steps to fill the vacant positions. Eleven new officers graduated from training in June, which decreased the number of vacancies to eight.

"We are in the process of hiring another class," Collier said, "and I believe we will fulfill our needs out of this group."

The department's needs extend past the eight vacancies as they expect officers to retire and others to leave for more lucrative opportunities. Mayor Don Kyle and the City Council noted the attrition and are letting the department hire over the eight vacancies.

According to Elaine Deck, senior program manager of research for International Association of Chiefs of Police, Decatur is a microcosm of the nation.

"This is an employee market," Deck said. "Police departments are competing against themselves and other industries to hire the same candidates."

For Decatur, the competition lies with the Alabama Department of Public Safety and other Alabama cities for qualified candidates. The salary for an entry-level Decatur police officer is $28,912, compared to $33,223 for an entry-level state trooper.

Ken Smith, director of the Personnel Department, said the personnel board is considering a cost-of-living salary increase. The board is recommending the 3 percent cost-of-living increase to the City Council as part of the annual budget. If approved, it will take effect Oct. 1.

"The increase," Smith said, "would bring us more in line with the salaries of other cities."

Along with the Personnel Department's proposed cost-of-living increase, the Police Department is augmenting its recruitment strategies.

The department created a recruitment brochure that defines officer qualifications, describes the career opportunities available and touts the benefits of the department. A recruitment team will represent the department at career fairs and at universities where the team will distribute brochures and talk with prospective candidates.

In addition to creating brochures, the department plans to use media outlets. By expanding the department's media exposure, Collier expects the number of applicants to increase.

Operating at its authorized level lets the department restructure. Residents can expect higher quality service if an alternative response system is instituted. The system will allow officers to handle complaints by phone or with a delayed response, where the officer would schedule a meeting with the victim.

"With this system, the guys would be freed up to act proactively and tackle the cause of the crime," Collier said.

As the number of officers increases, Collier is planning a department restructuring that will hold every officer accountable.

"The reorganization is designed to ensure that we have our people assigned the way they need to be assigned," Collier said. "Everyone will have a clear understanding of what we expect."

Collier hopes to discuss the reorganization plan at a City Council meeting later this month.

He expects the reorganization plan and new recruitment tactics will help the department achieve its goal.

"We want to be," Collier declared, "no less than the best department in the state."

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