NEW BEDFORD — The mayor and police chief are hoping they’ve hit on a way to lure more police officers to the city’s depleted force — a $5,000 sign-on bonus.
The hiring incentive was announced Monday, effective immediately for all new police officers, to address “acute” staffing shortages and recruiting challenges in the department.
The city’s police department is currently budgeted for 259 officers, but is now staffed at about 214, according to Mayor Jon Mitchell. When asked, Chief Paul Oliveira said he could not recall the last time department staff was at budgeted levels.
The current levels are lower than last May, when The Light reported about 225 officers were employed at the department. At that time, Oliveira cited a combination of early retirements, resignations and officers leaving for suburban departments or other professions — factors he also cited Monday.
The bonus will require new hires to stay with the department for at least five years. If they leave before then, they’ll have to pay the bonus back.
Mitchell said the staffing and recruiting challenges are not unique to New Bedford or the profession, and that the problem accelerated during pandemic and after periods of “civil unrest.”
The money will come from the police department’s budget. Mitchell said while other departments nationwide have used sign-on bonuses, there are not many cities in Massachusetts that have done it.
“I think the jury is still out, candidly, on the yield. It will take some time to understand exactly to what degree the bonuses motivated people to come and stay,” Mitchell said. “But we can afford to do this and it doesn’t make sense to wait around.”
The Bristol County Sheriff’s Office is another local agency trying the same tactic. A banner on the Ash Street Jail has been advertising a $1,500 sign-on bonus for correction officers.
To help with hiring, the police department also appointed a recruitment officer and next month will offer a practice civil service exam in advance of the exam in April. Mitchell noted there are also fewer applicants entering civil service.
Police Union President Lt. Evan Bielski said the bonus is a step in the right direction, but that the biggest issue is the retention of officers, and that more needs to be done to address it.
“We lost four officers today that just started the state police academy. I believe in the last five years … about 36 officers we’ve lost to other departments,” he said.
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Lt. Scott Carola, the department’s public information officer, did not immediately respond to a question to confirm the most recent departures noted by the union president.
According to data the department provided to The Light last year, there were at least 44 officer resignations between 2016 and about the first half of 2022. Data provided for May of last year through mid-February of this year states 15 retirements, 14 resignations (six of whom were recruits who left prior to completing training), and 28 hires.
City Councilor Ian Abreu mirrored Bielski’s sentiment, stating in a Facebook post that the city needs a plan to address retention issues: “There are officers being poached left and right by other departments constantly.”
Oliveira confirmed some officers are leaving for smaller, suburban departments.
Other contributing factors to retention issues, Bielski said, is the perception of police officers following national incidents, lower pay (noting some non-law enforcement jobs now have a higher hourly starting pay without the risk), and the residency requirement.
Under the city’s collective bargaining agreement, police officers hired before March 2018 are required to be city residents for no less than four consecutive years, and officers hired after March 2018 are required to be residents for no less than 10 consecutive years.
Asked if the city is considering lifting its residency requirement for police, Mitchell said on Monday they are in the middle of contract negotiations, but that it’s something that is being considered as a matter of necessity, whether it be on a temporary or permanent basis.
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The city previously argued the residency requirement would “strengthen officers’ connection with the community and promote community trust,” The Light reported on the prior contract arbitration. But Oliveira had then testified that an increase to the residency requirement would have a negative impact on hiring and retaining officers.
The police union has been outspoken on social media regarding staffing, posting more than 15 times this month to notify residents of every day the department has operated at decreased staffing levels.
Oliveira said there was no slowdown in response times as a result of shortages, but that the department may lose flexibility in the future in how it can shift personnel without needing to force overtime.
The department will offer the sign-on bonuses until it sees a “substantial recovery” in staffing levels.
“It’s going to be a full-court press until this problem is resolved,” said Oliviera.
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