Are hiring and retention bonuses useful? A look at 3 area police departments

Published: May. 17, 2023 at 8:49 AM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - As police departments struggle to fill vacant positions, hiring and retention bonuses are becoming more popular. But are those incentives really attracting candidates?

WCAX News took a look at staffing in Burlington, Williston and Shelburne. The police departments say these types of bonuses are helpful, but there are still other factors at play.

The Shelburne Police Department is staffed 24/7, no longer relying on the Vermont State Police to cover their midnight shift. Chief Mike Thomas says at one point the department was down to four officers.

“Those officers dug their heels in, worked hard, and never complained,” Thomas said. “We just kept pushing forward.”

Shelburne now has 12 officers, the maximum authorized by the town. Their recent hires include two officers who left during a leadership transition and then returned. Additionally, the town offers a $5,000 sign-on bonus.

“Recruitment and hiring have to be a continual process,” Thomas said. “It takes up to a year and a half to get through field training and the academy.”

The Williston Police Department also offers sign-on and retention bonuses, with the amount varying by experience. The department was fully staffed from last July until earlier this month when four officers left. Chief Patrick Foley says they stayed in law enforcement but left for more competitive pay.

“But our starting salary as of July 1st will be almost $30 an hour,” Foley said.

Williston is still staffed 24/7, but Foley says he’d like to see people not stretched so thin. He says they were working to create additional detective positions and a traffic safety division prior to the recent departures.

“We’re 50% ahead of our calls last year ahead of this date today, so crime is not taking any vacations,” Foley continued.

As for Burlington, Acting Police Chief Jon Murad told the city’s Public Safety Committee last week things have improved. However, they only have 64 of the 87 officers they’re authorized for and a 40% retention rate.

Burlington implemented hiring and retention bonuses in the fall of 2021.

“Over the past three years, I think there’s been an unhealthy level of stress in the Burlington Police Department,” Murad said. “Officers and other staff are suffering.”

While Chiefs Foley and Thomas say the hiring and retention bonuses are a useful tool, a lot of it comes down to department culture and getting people into the profession.

“Whether it’s walking the beat, driving a cruiser, or interacting with the public on a day-to-day basis, it provides some relief,” Foley said. “You know you did something good.”

Foley says there are 150 law enforcement positions open in Vermont.

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