Police Turnover, Low Morale Alarming, Community Leader Says

Town Manager: “False alarm not based on factual evidence”

The leader of a Smithfield organization says his group is concerned about the morale and high turnover rate in the Smithfield Police Department.

Tony Nixon, President of the East Smithfield Improvement Organization, told members of the Smithfield Town Council last week he was making “…a 911 call on behalf of all citizens of Smithfield. There is an alarm going off. Who will answer that call?”

Nixon said the police department has lost 24 sworn officers in the last 6 years.  Many of those left due to low pay or morale. Some say the department is a training ground for other police agencies.

“The emergency is about safety of the citizens and the morale of our officers. What we have is a nationally accredited professional police agency – a distinction well deserved – however, I feel there is something lacking from our responsibility to them that we have not adequately addressed. That responsibility begins with you gentlemen of the Town Council.”

A pay study was requested last Fall. Results of the pay study have not been announced.

Tony Nixon, President of the East Smithfield Improvement Organization, says he is concerned about the turnover rate and morale on the Smithfield police force. Nixon says 24 officers have left the department in the past 6 years. JoCoReport.com Photo

Nixon said the starting salary of a Smithfield police officer is $35,887, the fourth highest in the county. However, Smithfield police officers answer more calls than any other police department in the county. And because of the staffing shortage, many officers are overworked. He said many officers also find it hard to take time off because patrol squads are not fully staffed.

“We have lost officers to the Johnston County Sheriff’s Office, Clayton and Selma (police) and various Wake County police departments and the Wake County Sheriff’s Office. I’m afraid we are going to lose more if we don’t do something quickly. I feel this is a direct result of our pay and incentive structure.”

According to Nixon, Selma and Benson Police have the highest starting pay for rookie officers at $37,500 each. Benson does allow officers to take home a patrol car.  Clayton is third at $36,801 with a take home car.

The average pay for an officer in North Carolina is $51,179. The US average is $58,530 Nixon said.

“Also when you look at the volume and nature of calls taken by our department we are first in reports taken and second in calls for service in 2017. Let’s put it this way, why would an officer come to Smithfield to work harder in a more dangerous environment and be paid less?’ Plain and simple we have a morale problem which could lead to a public safety issue.”

Nixon urged the town council to increase police pay, allow officers to take home cars and guarantee them a minimum raise, merit or cost of living increase each year.   “It seems as though other agencies in the county are growing and Smithfield is shrinking. Remember perception is reality, it appears as though no one cares, there is no appreciation, or support from the people who are elected to put packages together to support our officers and their families.”

Nixon did offer praise to Police Chief Keith Powell and the administration. “All is not gloom. We seem to do some things right. We have leadership within the department which the men and women respect and I would submit some, and I stress some, of our officers stay only because of a sense of loyalty to our Chief and leadership. Our agency provides a lot of opportunities for additional training and guess what happens they are trained in Smithfield they become more marketable for the agencies paying more money and offering better incentives.”

Town Manager: Concerns A ‘False Alarm’
Smithfield Town Manager Michael Scott who served as police chief from 2009 to 2016 told WTSB, “We appreciate Mr. Nixon’s concerns for the Town of Smithfield. However, he suggested there was an “alarm” going off in Smithfield. We believe that his personal study is a false alarm not based on factual evidence. Mr. Nixon did not receive any of his information from Chief Powell or our Human Resources department.”

“The Town of Smithfield, under guidance of our Council, has invested a lot of time and resources into a salary survey that we expect to receive soon. Benefits, incentives and many of the recommendations suggested by Mr. Nixon were discussed throughout the last budget process. As an example, take home cars at a price of about $640,000 were also explored but could not be achieved without property tax increases. Once we receive the salary survey, recommendations will be made for all personnel within the Town of Smithfield, not just the police department.”

Police Chief: No Morale Or Turnover Issues
“There is no factual basis to say the morale is low within the police department,” Chief Powell told WTSB News in an emailed statement. “According to the data of Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics (LEMAS), the average nationwide turnover rate of law enforcement officers currently stands at 10.8%. Our turnover rate is below the national average.”

“The Smithfield Police Department is a nationally accredited law enforcement agency that does a fantastic job in today’s environment. We have community policing programs that support the 21st century policing recommendations that were installed under President Obama and we have great officers that produce great results for our citizens,” Chief Powell said.

He also pointed to the 2017 Smithfield Citizen Survey where over 95% of the community polled said they feel safe here.

Council Reaction
Smithfield Town Councilman Steve Rabil said he was not aware of the personnel issues. “I was totally unaware of any morale issues and the pay will be addressed once our pay study is complete. (It) will be addressed during the upcoming budget session.”

Councilman Marlon Lee, who was not present at the meeting, spoke with WTSB News afterwards.  “I am highly concerned about the comments Tony Nixon shared. We have a town manager that is the former police chief, so this is the one department that he is aware of I feel has not given the support that they deserve and need.  Safety is priority.”

Lee added, “This is not a direct hit on anyone, but this is a wakeup call saying that something needs to be done now.  Looking at the numbers, why would anyone want to come work in a town that has a higher population, more calls and less pay and incentives versus a town that has the opposite nearby.”

“I am ready to see some concrete evidence by the Human Resource Officer and Town Manager on when and how we are actively trying to recruit and maintain officers and especially minority officers to help serve the demographics of this town.  I myself have volunteered to help visit some HBCU’s (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) across NC to help recruit some officers. As a Councilman, We need to act now, stop talking, stop making excuses and do what’s right by our officers so they can protect all the citizens of Smithfield with some pride and dignity.”

Nixon agreed. “You can either be part of the problem or part of the solution. What we want is a police department that is proactive to our needs and not reactive.”

The Smithfield Police Department has 41 sworn officers. A WTSB News Public Records Request has revealed 22 officers have left the department in the last 5 years. 17 left voluntarily, two were fired and two retired. Former Chief Scott was promoted to Town Manager accounting for the 22nd officer leaving the department.