GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Law enforcement is dealing with unprecedented turnover, with many departments across West Michigan struggling to fill open positions.
Like much of the country, police departments have struggled with staffing shortages. Some agencies have been forced to leave road patrol shifts unfilled.
While the Kent County Sheriff’s Office is at full staff, the department has experienced significant turnover over the last few years. Two dozen people resigned in 2022 alone, with many leaving law enforcement entirely.
“Beyond that, we had the retirements, too,” Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young said.
The sheriff explained that many people joined law enforcement in the 1990s and many are now approaching retirement age.
“This is a job that has a limited number of years you can effectively do this work, because it’s very physical,” she said.
The sheriff’s office currently has 110 deputies on road patrol. Two thirds of them, 74, were hired within the past three years.
“These numbers are unprecedented for us and everybody else,” LaJoye-Young said. “It’s significant for us to endure as an agency.”
The sheriff emphasized the turnover “is not indicative of a workplace issue.”
“The sheriff’s department is a very good place to work,” she said. “We have a wonderful culture here and the people who work here very much enjoy it. But I think it’s this industry in general that is struggling with how do we deliver that work-life balance.”
“I think some of the resignation is about those individuals that we’re bringing in that maybe weren’t as prepared for this life change as others had been historically,” LaJoye-Young added.
High turnover is causing stress on the department’s training system, with many more cadets going through the six-month program.
“We can only bring so many people in at a time and train them,” LaJoye-Young said.
The sheriff said staffing shortages have forced other departments to cut back training from six months to four months.
“I will not cut back on the training,” she said. “They’re not ready until they’re ready. And if they need longer than six months, I’ll take longer than six months with them. I’m not going to expose that officer to the safety risk that would be there if they haven’t been properly trained. And I’m not going to expose the community member to the safety risk with somebody not being properly trained.”
Despite the challenges, LaJoye-Young emphasized that road patrol shifts will be filled.
“Obviously there’s calls for service,” she said. “We have a community that’s counting on us to be there in a time of tragedy and we have to fill the shifts. We have to have people available to answer the calls.”
The Grand Rapids Police Department is down 30 to 35 employees.
“We’re really short all across the board,” Chief Eric Winstrom said. “It is a problem, and optimistically, we’re making some progress and we’re working through it.”
The openings range from road patrol to the detective unit. Some officers are coming in on their days off.
“Over the summer, as it gets busier, we’re going to unfortunately by reverse seniority, we’re going to end up ordering some officers to come in on their days off,” Winstrom said. “We’re kind of spreading the pain around where everybody’s doing a little more than they would normally be doing.”
Staffing shortages have not worsened since Winstrom took over the department in March 2022, he said. GRPD has not seen the same level of turnover as the sheriff’s office, even with retirements.
“We have had a lot of officers hit that mark where they’re at their 50th year where they’re eligible for their pension, so they could leave, but fortunately they have not left,” Winstrom said.
He said staffing shortages can lead to a longer response to 911 calls in some cases. As police prioritize more serious crimes, other calls can be delayed.
“When you start talking about shorting the detective division, now you’re talking about a store owner calling and saying, ‘There’s a shoplifting thing that’s going on. What are you doing to catch this bad guy? I have his picture.’ It’s possible that case is going to have to take a back seat to some violent crime that we’re working on. Really, the overall level of police service is going to be slower and it’s just not going to be the standard we want it to be when we’re shorthanded.”
During the summer months, when violence traditionally rises, GRPD can be especially crunched.
“If there’s a spike in violence like we saw last June and July where we had 11 murders, what we’re doing then is we’re overtaxing our detective division,” Winstrom said. “One individual who’s murdered, we’re going to send just about every detective that’s available.”
GRPD also been forced to pull back from its presence with the Boys & Girls Club in Grand Rapids. Police also removed three officers from the Homeless Outreach Team.
“If there’s a danger to the individuals on the Homeless Outreach Team, of course we’ll be there,” Winstrom said. “But as far as just doing that day-to-day proactive outreach, we simply just don’t have the capacity we did over COVID.”
Five years ago, the sheriff would get 200 applications for a few openings. It’s dramatically different now.
“This last application period, I barely had the same number of applications that we had openings,” LaJoye-Young said.
The sheriff’s office has been able to fill its openings, but recruiting has been all hands on deck.
“We had to offer a recruiting bonus to current staff,” LaJoye-Young said. “If a staff member knows somebody and refers to them to the department and they become employed, that officer is compensated for that.”
To fill the need, the sheriff asked the community to encourage young people to consider law enforcement. She wants to continue reaching out to minority groups, too.
“We have to do better at reaching some of our nontraditional staff groups, encouraging them that this is a fulfilling, satisfying role to fill for the rest of your life,” LaJoye-Young said. “Until we do that and we do that consistently, we’re going to struggle with staffing.”
Winstrom is hopeful about recruiting.
“There’s no magic wand for recruiting. The best way to recruit is to have this to be a good place for police officers to work,” Winstrom said. “That’s why morale is so important, making sure police officers feel supported by me, by the city, by city leadership, by residents in the city.”
GRPD has a new social media program to better connect with applicants, thanks to support from the city commission. Police have also hired a new recruiting agency, EPIC, which will come to the city in April and help work on branding, marketing and recruitment videos.
A GRPD recruit team also recently traveled to historically Black colleges and universities, laying the groundwork for future in-person and virtual visits in the future.
“I am very optimistic we’re heading in the right direction,” Winstrom said.