Lafayette police are short-staffed. Would a pay bump attract more applicants?

Lafayette Police Chief Judith Estorge with officers
Lafayette Police Chief Judith Estorge, flanked by officers at a LaPlace area meeting earlier this summer, has asked for more resources to address public safety and property crimes in local neighborhoods. Photo by Travis Gauthier

A proposed pay raise for incoming Lafayette Police Department officers, if approved by the City Council, would put the LPD in a top tier of starting pay among agencies in Louisiana.

The Guillory administration’s proposal comes at a time when police departments everywhere are struggling to recruit and retain officers and would potentially position the LPD to lure both in-state and out-of-state talent attracted to the Lafayette area.

Staffing has been a challenge for the Lafayette PD, and much of the rest of the country, since the pandemic and the wave of social unrest that followed George Floyd’s murder by police in Minnesota. Although police recruiting was a challenge for some agencies ahead of the seismic unrest of 2020, police retirements and resignations accelerated as those events unfolded. The last time LPD was at capacity employment was at the end of 2019, the last pre-Covid year.

So how bad is it here?

The LPD is currently allocated for 309 positions with 39 openings, confirms Sgt. Robin Green, LPD’s public information officer. That puts the agency pretty much in line with where it was a year ago when then-interim Chief Monte Potier told council members the department was short of its staffing allocation by 9 percent.

“We have 304 allocated, we’re at 278. So we’re 26 vacancies right now,” Potier said, noting that seven officers were in training.

Green says as of mid-July, five officers were in the academy receiving training, another six were in field training, two on light/injury duty and another eight were waiting to attend the next academy in September. Those figures do not include the number of officers out on sick/stress leave, administrative leave, military leave or suspensions from duty. A public records request for those totals is pending.

Whether hiring conditions are improving across the country is a mixed bag, a policing research organization recently found.

“Hiring seems to be picking back up, as responding agencies reported hiring more sworn officers in 2022 than in 2021, 2020, or even 2019 — the last pre-pandemic year,” the Police Executive Research Forum wrote in its most recent survey, published in April. Still, PERF found, agencies are losing officers faster than they can hire new ones, so total sworn staffing has continued to decline, with nearly 50 percent more resignations and 20 percent more retirements in 2022 than in 2019. As a result, total sworn staffing has dropped nearly 5 percent over the past three years.

Is better pay a potential fix?

Some agencies are offering incentives to lure officers, to mixed success. In the most recent legislative session, Louisiana added $100 to officers’ $500 in supplemental pay and offered up a $5,000 bonus for newly employed municipal police officers, deputy sheriffs and state police troopers who have never worked in law enforcement before. 

The bonus incentive started July 1, but the details are still being ironed out, so they haven’t actually kicked in and aren’t yet appearing in LPD’s advertising.

Bonuses are nothing new in recruitment efforts, and the impact such a modest one might have is unclear. Baton Rouge PD, for example, continues to face manpower shortages despite a recent incentive program that offered $10,000 and $15,000 bonuses, and such incentives have been known to create hard feelings when they bump new hire pay above what working officers make.

The Lake Charles Police Department navigated that scenario a year ago when it began offering $15,000 bonuses paid out over three years to attract post-certified officers ($6,000 for new recruits), according to Sgt. George Miller, president of the Lake Charles Police Officers’ Association. The department has 188 allocations and at the time had 28 vacancies.

“They understood why we were doing the recruiting incentive, [but] a few individuals expressed concerns,” Miller says, inquiring, for instance, whether there would be some consideration for retention bonuses. “Why don’t y’all give us something,” Miller recalls them asking.

“I explained to them this was giving them something,” Miller says. “The biggest concern with the department at that time was manpower.” The department couldn’t wait the 18 months it would take to train and deploy an officer who wasn’t post-certified, he says.

As of March, 65 post-certified officers had reached out to the department, 25 were brought in for interviews and 14 hired. The department is currently down 30 positions due to retirements and departures to other careers over the past year, Miller says. “We’d be drowning,” if not for the incentive, he maintains. “This has been a lifesaver getting the amount of people we got in on this program.”

Pay raises could be in the offing for entry level police officers in Lafayette, though the increase under consideration would not have new officers making more than those already on the force. Amid his re-election bid, Mayor-President Josh Guillory has proposed a new pay plan, set to be introduced at the Aug. 8 City Council meeting, that will bump starting pay from $40,000 to $47,000, a salary that would climb to $54,200 after officers are post-certified and state supplemental pay kicks in (Guillory is also seeking a pay bump for the fire department).

“If this goes through, the recruiting boost would be massive,” says one Police Association of Lafayette member. “When you include state supplemental pay, we’d be the highest paid municipality besides NOPD and Kenner; whenever your base pay goes up, so does your overtime pay,” the union member adds. “It’s great for in-state competition and for recruiting talent that might be attracted to the Lafayette area from states like Mississippi and Arkansas.”

“I think the support for raises is there,” says City Council member Nanette Cook, noting she’s not sure whether the council will get incoming officers to $47,000.

The LPD’s Green points out that Lafayette may be in much better shape than some of its peers, like Baton Rouge, which had 110 vacancies last month, and New Orleans, which was about 700 short of its 1,600 allocation earlier this year. And, she says, the department is throwing a kitchen sink of options into addressing the 39 openings here.

“Over the past few months, we have become more aggressive in our recruiting efforts by showing up at local coffee shops, attending job fairs, going to colleges/tech schools and community events. We have created an amazing recruitment video and are in the process of developing an entire recruitment campaign,” Green says.