CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Division of Police has been struggling for years to recruit and keep officers. The shortage continues to grow every week as more officers retire or leave for better paying police jobs elsewhere.
"The thing that is unknown and is even scarier is that we probably have 200 more officers that could go at any time," Cleveland City Council President Blaine Griffin told 3News in a recent interview, "and that could put us in a real crisis."
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Griffin is referring to the looming contract talks between the city and the police union, which is asking for a base pay increase and larger annual raises. He says without pay changes, more officers will leave.
"Other cities are poaching our officers on a regular basis," he added. "They come here and make better offers and give signing bonuses."
Just today, the Columbus Police Department was in town recruiting Cleveland officers, dangling far fatter paychecks. It's offering officers with less than five years of experience $67,000 annually, and those with five or more years on the force would be paid a yearly salary of nearly $90,000.
Cleveland pays rookies just $52,000 a year, and officers with more experience make on average $67,300, according to earlier police union statements and testimony before council.
"We have underpaid compared to other cities," Griffin said. "We have underpaid them for what we are asking them to do. I don't know anyone who disagrees with that."
Further discouraging officers in Cleveland and other big cities is the increasingly violent streets and the perception that public support has dropped after high-profile police shootings.
Cleveland faces another recruiting hurdle—Issue 24, an amendment to the city's charter backed by voters in November. It gives some department decisions and discipline of officers to a civilian board.
"We need to make sure we support our officers and we let them know that as a Cleveland City Council, we stand behind them and we stand behind them as the public," Griffin stated. "We appreciate their service, because morale is really down right now."
Cleveland hopes to boost police ranks this year. It's budgeted for 1,640 officers, but the recent recruiting struggles suggest the city will come up way short. Already 220-plus officers below the target, the men and women on the streets are overburdened and at times required to work extended shifts.
Since Jan. 1, 73 officers have left. Many of those just resigned, according to a city spreadsheet detailing departures through April 18. More than 300 officers are eligible for retirement this year, according to testimony during recent budget hearings.
A big pay increase for the police is not a given, the council president says, because Mayor Justin Bibb's budget spends more than it's taking in and relys on federal money to balance the budget (Council, however, signed off on the budget).
Griffin says the city is headed into tough financial times.
"I'm also huge on good government and making sure we don't make promises we can't deliver on," he noted.
Griffin also said he doesn't want to lay off hundreds of police officers because of financial problems, as Cleveland did in the early 2000s.