Charlotte’s police chief: 911 lags are an issue of trying to do more with less

It is no secret. Police departments and law enforcement agencies across the country face ongoing challenges due to an industry-wide officer shortage. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department is no exception. We are down nearly 250 officers and we are currently experiencing a record number of retirements.

We continue to get creative with our strategic efforts to recruit new officers, retain current officers as well as build up our civilian support staff who are so critical to our mission.

The Police Executive Research Forum surveyed local law enforcement agencies regarding staffing, hiring, retirement and resignation trends among officers from 2019-2021. The nationwide officer shortage is supported by the key findings in the report:

Down 4% in hirings in 2021 compared to 2019

Up 43% in resignations 2021 compared to 2019

Up 24% in retirements in retirements 2021 compared to 2019

Our profession has faced a multitude of challenges from COVID-19, a perfect storm of “baby boomer” retirements and “the great resignation,” to high turnover rates due to public perception of law enforcement after media coverage of high-profile police shootings and violent interactions.

Although incentives are certainly helpful and competitive salaries are critical, it’s simply not enough. At what point do we look at the deeper, systemic challenges our officers face that change the impact of our work and ultimately affect our duty to protect and serve?

As violent crime rates increased in some U.S. cities over the last few years, CMPD saw year-over-year violent crime decreases, which we accomplished with fewer officers, fewer prosecutors and an exploding population. The data confirms that our work is making a difference, but at what cost? We continue to be challenged with strategizing how we can do more with less.

Our 911-call response times are not where we want them to be, and we’ve been very transparent about that. In 2022, our 911-telecommunicators answered almost 1 million calls for service, an increase from 2021 which was accomplished with close to 20% fewer telecommunicators.

Despite having fewer officers’ year over year, we have seen a 7% increase in arrests, an 8% increase in gun seizures, and a 5% decrease in violent crime. I’m certainly proud of our CMPD employees and their work, but I do not say any of this to be boastful. We are just learning to be as efficient as possible with the staff that we have. However, that is not a sustainable method for any organization, especially one responsible for the safety of a community.

I know we have outstanding men and women within CMPD who are committed to keeping all of our citizens safe. Despite the challenges we have seen in the past few years, I commend those who have remained in the profession as well as those who have joined.

As a young man out of college, I had no interest in becoming a police officer and even scoffed at the idea when recommended by a long-time friend. I can only imagine if the perception of policing back then was what it is now, I would have passed up on a noble and honorable profession and a wonderful career.

Our challenge continues to be overcoming the narrative that police put on their uniform each day trying to figure out how they can harm people, specifically people of color. Imagine how difficult it is to convince anyone, much less minority candidates to join the profession when there is so much public scrutiny and controversy.

This profession is bigger than any one of us, and when an officer violates the very laws we are sworn to uphold or mistreats someone they encounter, it impacts each and every officer across the country. Whether you believe this to be fair or not, it is the reality we face today. The impact is not just on our sworn employees, but also our non-sworn employees who are so vital to our profession.

We are working tirelessly to recruit and retain the best men and women to be a part of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. But it is going to require additional incentives, budget considerations and bold legislative changes within our systems. Changes that will not only encourage our existing employees who are working diligently to keep our community safe, but changes that also provide inspiration for people to enter the law enforcement field. Because I know without a doubt, this is still the greatest profession in the world and it is an immense privilege to serve at the best police department in the nation.

Johnny Jennings is Chief of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, which employs more than 1,900 sworn officers, 500 civilian employees and 500 volunteers.