The Charlottesville Police Department is down nearly two dozen officers and vacancies are getting harder to fill.
The department is experiencing a “mass exodus,” according to Police Chief RaShall Brackney.
“It seems like, I think, on average, one to two officers a week are leaving the department,” she said.
Brackney said the department, which has 128 officers, is conducting exit interviews with all departees and four issues are the leading causes — salary, a lack of take-home cars, the climate in the city since Aug. 12 and attitudes of members of the initial Police Civilian Review Board.
“It’s very difficult in this time, in this place, given the culture and the climate,” Interim City Manager Mike Murphy said.
City police officers’ starting salary is $40,310, which is less than the starting pay for Charlottesville firefighters at $41,932.
The city also pays less than the Albemarle County and University of Virginia police departments, which Brackney said both start officers at about $45,000.
Those departments also are implementing a pay scale, Brackney said, starting next year, meaning officers will be guaranteed a pay raise based on experience.
In the city, pay raises are based on across-the-board increases for city employees that the City Council approves during the budget process.
In 2019, the city plans to increase its minimum wage to $15 an hour, which will slightly boost salaries, but keep CPD still below its competitors.
The increase from $14.40 to $15 is a 4.1 percent raise. Murphy said he plans to include an additional 4.9 percent raise for the police department in his recommended budget for fiscal 2019, which starts July 1.
Another complaint from departing officers is they don’t get take-home cars.
Charlottesville doesn’t provide take-home cars for all officers, unlike Albemarle County. However, Brackney said a “great majority” of officers receive the vehicles.
The vehicles initially were meant to cut down on response times in emergencies and provide a visible presence in the community, Brackney said.
“The benefit was that you would see this vehicle in the community and it would act as a resource multiplier,” she said. “You felt safer.”
However, a lack of affordable housing for officers means many live outside the city limits so the department wouldn’t get the benefit of increased visibility.
Brackney said the department is considering “creative” ways to allow take-home cars, such as a rotating pool of cars or guaranteeing them after a certain length of employment.
The third big issue for officers is the climate in the community, which Brackney said has been toxic since before the Unite the Right rally.
“Officers in our community are routinely verbally assaulted, they’re cursed at. There’s a lot of not feeling as though they’re appreciated,” Brackney said. “We have it on video where people are cursing our officers, calling them names for no other reason than walking down the street.”
Brackney said officers see an opportunity for a better environment in other departments.
“They can go to other communities and that will not occur,” she said. “They’re not being confronted like that in Albemarle or even on UVa’s campus.”
The fourth top reason officers leave, according to Brackney, is how “vocal and biased” members of the initial Police Civilian Review Board have been toward officers.
The board is tasked with creating bylaws for a future board that will provide civilian oversight of the department.
Brackney said board members are on radio and TV and at marches saying officers’ days are numbered and that they’re coming after them.
“The officers do not believe that there’s going to be any fair, impartial oversight,” Brackney said. “It’s well-documented of how some of them have treated our officers, including me.”
City residents’ attitude toward officers hurts recruitment, Brackney said, which makes positions remain open longer.
“We talk about that we want a diverse force, but if a person feels like they’re not going to be welcomed in that community, that they’re coming into a community where it’s actively hostile towards them, it makes it a challenge to recruit,” she said. “I think there’s this assumption that these kinds of things are going to be heaped on our officers and that they’re never going to say anything. They have family, they have friends and things of that nature.”
Brackney said the department has banded together to cover duties with the vacancies. Sometimes, detectives are required to complete patrol work just to ensure the city has proper coverage.
“We’re all in this together to ease that burden or until the climate improves,” Brackney said. “I’m hoping with the more distance between now and August 2017, that we’re successful or at least we don’t have the type of harm that was done in 2017, that there’s an ability to move forward.”