Onancock grapples with keeping police department positions filled

Town of Onancock welcome sign. Photo by Carol Vaughn.

BY CAROL VAUGHN, Eastern Shore Post —

Onancock officials should keep five positions in the police department and should consider hiring bonuses and increased contributions for family health insurance, according to the town manager.

Town Manager Matt Spuck in a presentation at the Jan. 23 Town Council meeting detailed issues with police department staffing and what the town might do to better recruit and retain officers. 

At present, the town has two officers and the police chief on staff.

Additional recommendations are to consider beefing up consequences for recruits who leave before the agreed-upon time after the town pays to train them, retention bonuses for those who stay on longer, and wages for the mid-level positions, captain and sergeant.

“The question was asked, do we need four or five police officers,” Spuck said, noting the idea expressed was that with four officers, the town could offer higher wages.

The town’s wages for police in some aspects are competitive with other Shore localities, Spuck said, noting he spoke about police pay with officials at three Shore towns and the Accomack County Sheriff’s Office.

Onancock’s wages “are very competitive for pre-academy officers” but “slip a little” for more experienced officers, he said.

Chincoteague, for example, gives a $10,000 raise when an employee graduates from the police academy.

“We’re having a problem with a lack of qualified candidates,” Spuck said, adding that it is a national problem.

“Just about every agency on the Shore is hiring,” he said.

The “big question” is whether having more officers reduces crime, according to Spuck.

The town, with an average of 4.2 officers over the last decade, reported 803 crimes worked by town police.

In the early part of the decade, from 2012 to 2016, with an average of 4.6 officers, the rate was 68.6 crimes per year to which town officers responded.

In the next five years, with an average of 3.8 officers, the rate was 92 crimes per year reported.

“So, fewer officers, higher criminal offenses — that relationship is important to look at,” Spuck said.

With four officers on patrol, around two-thirds of the time is covered by the town police. With five, that increases to 85%, Spuck said, noting response time goes up when an outside agency, such as the Sheriff’s Office, has to respond to a reported crime.

Addressing the perception that Onancock has had problems retaining police officers, Spuck said in the last 10 years the town had seven officers resign — four went to the sheriff’s office and three were not work related.

The cost of health insurance was one reason for leaving that “warrants discussion,” Spuck said.

The town pays 100% of individual health insurance premiums, but the cost to the employee for two-person coverage is $8,600 per year and the cost for a family is more than $17,000 per year.

“We’re almost forcing ourselves into the type of officer that we are going to get. If we want to attract … police officers with families, we truly have to deal with this,” Spuck said.

The council directed Spuck to prepare budget figures for a department of four versus five police officers.

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