Testimony Details Issues Recruiting/Retaining Police Officers

Kentucky police departments need more recruits, better retention of veterans, and less wait time at the training academy. That was the message legislators heard on Tuesday when police chiefs testified to the Interim Joint Committee on Local Government. While departments devised ways to solve some issues, all agreed anti-police sentiment adversely impacted the situation. Where once hundreds of candidates tried for open positions, now only a handful apply.

“I do believe the quality is there, and we’re hiring quality people,” said Henderson Police Chief Heath Cox. “It is just a smaller pool.” Cox outlined his department’s efforts to retrain and recruit.

Henderson shifted money budgeted for open positions to provide current officer’s pay raises, and the department moved to a 12-hour work shift. KLC has advocated for the past two legislative sessions for a change in the law to allow home rule cities the flexibility to adjust work hours to suit the needs of the community and its officers. Henderson also changed its take-home vehicle policy so officers who live in the county, outside city limits, can take home their police cars.

“This is an issue that all of our communities are struggling with whether they are large or small,” said Shawn Butler, executive director of the Kentucky Association of Chiefs of Police.

Department of Criminal Justice Training (DOCJT) Commissioner Nicolai Jilek testified about a state training facility backlog. Jilek said that while they have no openings for new officers until the late November class, his staff has reduced backlogs to pre-COVID levels.

Cities that hire new officers must pay salaries until an academy spot opens. The current wait for an academy opening is more than four months, and the academy lasts 20 weeks for new recruits. That means it takes nearly a year for a new hire to receive certification, which costs departments money and time. The Kentucky League of Cities Board of Directors voted last month to work with DOCJT and legislators to remove delays in training of new law enforcement officers.

Jilek described his staff’s efforts to fit as many recruits as possible into the facility in a way that mitigates pandemic risks. He acknowledged scheduling delays impact city budgets. Cities pay recruits for their time at the academy and for any overtime that results from their training.

Butler questioned if legislative changes to the pension system played a role in the retention problem, but Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown) quickly disputed that contention.

Thayer sponsored Senate Bill 2 in the 2013 session. The KLC initiative created the Tier 3 hybrid cash balance plan for new hires. Thayer noted that the new plan helped get pension systems back on track while providing employees a guarantee that is not available in a 401K. “It is a defined benefit plan that has some of the properties of a defined contribution plan,” Thayer explained. “I would urge you guys not to have that narrative because it’s going to be a negative for your recruits.”

Additionally, Thayer pointed out that the millennial generation that police departments hope to recruit and retain is unlikely to spend 20 years at one job, so pension plan portability is a recruiting benefit. “This General Assembly backs the blue,” Thayer added. “We have got your back, and we are not part of the defund the police movement. We want to make sure you guys know that.”

Thayer also talked about Senate Bill 80. Legislators passed the KLC initiative in the 2021 session to help law enforcement agencies remove troubled officers by strengthening Kentucky’s police decertification law. Thayer stated the measure was “one of the highlights of the session.”