The Tuscaloosa City Council unanimously approved a one-time $10,000 retention bonus for its police officers Tuesday night as they struggle to maintain the full force of the department.

Ideally, the city is budgeted to employ just under 300 police officers, but for years the department has been understaffed by at least a couple dozen men and women.

A lot of factors contribute to the problem - city leaders say it's less popular than ever to become a police officer. Neighboring agencies offer higher salaries, better working conditions or both. TPD officers also work mandatory overtime shifts policing Alabama football games, weekend nights on the Strip and downtown and more. Perhaps most significantly, TPD officers are not enrolled in the coveted Retirement System of Alabama, although the council has vowed to change that by 2026.

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The end result is that the Tuscaloosa Police Department is short about 50 officers when you add together unfilled vacancies and new hires who are still in their probationary training periods.

The shifts left uncovered by those vacancies still have to be worked, though, which stretches the officers who are still with TPD even thinner.

On Tuesday, the city council approved a near-immediate, one-time $10,000 bonus for all police, including every officer, sergeant, lieutenant, captain, assistant chief and Blankley himself, who said in a committee meeting last week that leaving any officer out of the proposed bonus program would "absolutely kill" morale.

Every officer who receives the bonus must sign a two-year retention agreement committing to 24 months of continuous service with TPD, or else pay back the full bonus amount received within 30 days of employment's end.

The bonuses are expected to cost the city more than $3 million, but Tuscaloosa's Chief Financial Officer Carly Standridge said they will be paid out of reserves the city has built by not paying salaries for budgeted positions that remain vacant.

Standridge and Blankley also stressed that these $10,000 bonuses, which officers will receive in the first week of September, are not going to "fix" anything.

“We know this is a Band-Aid. It says ‘Hey, stay here, get us through, the council understands what’s going on and the price of police officers has gone up,’" Blankey said. "'We need to do a long-term fix, everybody knows that, but the city is willing to work at that and this is to kind of keep you here, so let’s keep you here, let’s keep you tied in, then let’s look toward the future.'"

The problem, Standridge said, is that even after the retention bonus, roughly 120 officers at TPD are still making less than they would if they went to UAPD tomorrow, and the city can't afford to lose any of them.

"We understand we can't print money like UA, we get that," Blankley said. "But we're trying to come up with a solid thing because I am in crisis mode right now."

After suggesting that it's time to start figuring out long-term solutions to the police staffing problem, the council unanimously approved the $10,000 bonuses Tuesday.

The same council has already passed an unrelated TPD signing bonus and voted to change policy and let officers drive their police vehicles home, which TPD did not allow before this year. They also voted last month to stop allowing new bars or gastropubs to open in Tuscaloosa through at least the end of this year after Blankley said the city "has enough bars," and the department is overworked trying to police them.

"If anybody in fire or police or law enforcement doesn't think we support them and are appreciative of them, they’ve been asleep the last two years," Councilman Norman Crowe said.

For more from City Hall and TPD as it continues to develop, stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread.

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