If Arlington leaders thought they would be able to manage and massage local fallout related to the exodus of those in the policing profession nationally, harsh reality is now staring them directly in the face.
Nearly 50 sworn officers of the Arlington County Police Department so far this year have retired, quit or announced plans to leave, more than all of 2019 and 2020 combined, and the ability to recruit others to replace them is being handcuffed by a dearth of those aspiring to join the police ranks – in Arlington or elsewhere.
The local police force, which at full strength should comprise 325 officers, is now at 290, “and we’re going to be closer to 280 by the time we get to November,” County Manager Mark Schwartz said during a recent briefing to County Board members.
“I don’t want to overstate it, I don’t want to call it a crisis, but it is of high importance,” Schwartz said of the departures. “Our police officers have made it clear that the demands and stress are really weighing heavily on them.”
And opportunities await those in the profession who choose to look for them. One example: Schwartz pointed to a number of officers, including a deputy chief, who have handed in their notice in order to take jobs at Amazon’s growing headquarters presence in the local area. And the county manager said he found it hard to find fault with their decisions.
“They’re going to a lower-stress environment for higher pay,” he said.
The exodus of the rank-and-file has had ripple effects. Among them: The number of hours of overtime paid by the department to meet minimal staffing levels is running at double the not-insubstantial totals of 2020; more than a third of those in supervisory positions have been in those jobs for less than a year; and nearly 50 officers remain in various levels of training status.
It all adds up to “stark concerns,” said County Board Chairman Matt de Ferranti.
And for Arlington residents, the results could be fewer police services and less responsiveness than their world-class tax bills have supported in the past.
It may be time to “manage expectations in the community in what we can do and can’t do,” said Police Chief Andy Penn.
The most obvious solution to address any situation like this? Throw money at it. And Schwartz does want to provide retention and recruitment bonuses and other incentives both for officers and those who work in the behavioral-health field, which is interconnected with policing.
Money is fine, but “we need to fix the other pieces of this problem,” County Board member Takis Karantonis said.
Among ways to address concerns of those who are sticking around on the job, Penn said, include giving officers a variety of career paths through the department – including routes that do not necessarily require them to move into supervisory roles – and providing personnel with “a reasonable work-life balance.”
“It’s a multi-step conversation,” he said of ramped-up efforts.
But conversations, and even cash, may still fall short.
“We like to think we can control our destiny,” Schwartz said, but enticing new people into the profession may be challenging given the “things that are going on at the national level.”
The past 18 months have seen police and policing at the national level vilified by a segment of the population that while relatively small is exceedingly vocal and tends to get disproportionate media coverage. Critics and some in the media turned the actions of a few rogue officers nationally into an effort to denigrate the entire profession.
Schwartz noted that a number of Arlington police officers have taken positions in the county’s fire department, a professional that, nationally, has not seen the level of abuse that has been leveled at police departments.