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Editorial: As Roanoke police go, so goes the nation

Roanoke Chief of Police Sam Roman

Roanoke Chief of Police Sam Roman takes the podium during the Roanoke Gun Violence Prevention Commission meeting at the Berglund Center in November.

Calls to “defund the police” have not caught on with the American people.

The concept behind the slogan — a well-intentioned assertion that police are too often first responders in situations that might better call for, say, a social worker or mental health specialist, and funding could be diverted to improve those services, instead of making police responsible for a grab bag of situations they’re not trained to handle — that concept might have some merit, but that’s not what the phrase “defund the police” summons in the public’s imagination.

A USA Today/Ipsos poll conducted in March demonstrated that fewer than one in five Americans supported defunding the police, while three in five adamantly opposed the idea.

Though the slogan became part of the national lexicon during the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer, even a Gallop poll conducted three months later showed that Black communities, while less confident than other demographics that police would treat them well, still did not want police presences reduced in their neighborhoods, by a margin of 80% to 20%.

In November in Minneapolis, where city council members vowed to replace the police department with a department of public safety after a viral video of Floyd’s killing sparked outrage and even riots nationwide, voters rejected that proposal 56% to 44%, with Black communities contributing heavily to the “no” vote.

While conversations about reform continue, especially when it comes to shootings and killings committed by officers, defunding the police is a non-starter.

Demoralizing the police, on the other hand, that’s unquestionably happening.

Case in point, the Roanoke City Police Department. As disclosed in Roanoke Times reporter Jeff Sturgeon’s excellent Dec. 19 story (“Understaffing plagues RPD”), a poll conducted by the nonprofit Roanoke City Police Association found that 96% of the 101 officers who responded reported low morale.

This poll arrives as the department continues to struggle with managing its duties while more than 40 positions remain unfilled, about one-sixth of the potential complement. The city has seen an alarming rise in gun violence in 2020 and 2021, the bulk of it affecting the city’s Black communities, but because of the personnel shortage, Roanoke police have not been able to assemble a planned gang investigation unit.

Specialized units have been dissolved to keep patrol platoons fully staffed — with an expectation that the work those units did will continue between regular calls.

Undoubtedly many in the force feel the frustration of not being able to take the time to perform a job to their fullest ability because understaffing has forced employees to rush through tasks that were once someone else’s full time duties.

In the poll, Roanoke police focused that frustration on their leader since March 2020, Chief Sam Roman, who was hired after three years as chief of the Lexington Police Department, and who before then worked for a quarter century in the Roanoke department, rising to the rank of deputy chief.

About 70% of the officers who responded to the poll said Roman isn’t living up to their expectations, with some adding comments calling for his removal.

Taking a step back for a broader view raises a question of whether Roman can fairly be held responsible for the staffing crisis. For certain, replacing him wouldn’t magically fix the problem.

Like the increase in gun violence, the shortage of police is not just a local issue but a national trend, with roots that reach back before the “defund the police” push that garnered so much national attention in the summer of 2020.

The Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C., based organization that focuses on policing issues, published a survey in June about the shortage in which 194 police agencies participated. Those agencies reported an average of 7% of officer positions vacant, and with Roanoke’s portion of vacancies at 17%, that is cause for concern, although the precise reason for the difference seems nebulous.

In the Roanoke City Police Association poll, 70% reported hunting for another job. Joel Patrick, the association president, says that officers are leaving for other policing jobs of at least equal pay outside the city. This too is illustrative of a larger phenomenon, as police agencies compete to attract the shrinking pool of talent. (As Roanoke City Councilman Bill Bestpitch noted in a Dec. 18 op-ed in these pages, the state has been neglecting to pay its share of support for municipal police departments for years, which surely doesn’t help.) The pay increases, sign-on bonuses and retention bonuses for city government employees approved by Roanoke’s council on Dec. 20 should help.

The PERF study found that in 2020-21 police departments are experiencing a 45% increase in retirements and an 18% increase in resignations over the previous year. Based on comments that accompanied the survey, pandemic-related stress caused some officers to take retirement as soon as they were eligible rather than holding on for a slightly higher pension. But another factor is simply that large numbers of officers hired in the 1990s through federally funded programs have reached retirement age.

Police departments nationwide have been seeing a decline in new applicants for years. Some of this is attributed to increased negative scrutiny and greater potential liability that officers have faced because of incidents like the 2014 police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York, both unarmed Black men. Without discounting that factor, the Police Executive Research Forum found causes that are even more basic — young applicants simply don’t find a decades-long career in law enforcement enticing when there are higher-paying, less dangerous jobs in good supply.

Another PERF report about the police workforce crisis, released a few months before the pandemic began, delved into some intriguing solutions — that perhaps might be hard for an already understaffed department to swing — including streamlining the application processes, going out into the community to actively recruit potential hires and restructuring jobs with an assumption that new hires aren’t interested in staying for life.

The launching of 20 community-based initiatives to assist the police in addressing gun violence shows that Roanoke’s leadership recognizes this staffing problem will be around for the long haul.

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