The city of Tuscaloosa is considering a one-time, $10,000 retention bonus for officers as it desperately tries to stop the proverbial bleeding at its already understaffed police department.

The problems at TPD are not news - as the Thread has previously reported, there are dozens of unfilled vacancies within the department that have persisted for years, which recently led the city council to declare a moratorium on allowing new bars to open in Tuscaloosa.

In a Tuesday meeting, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox said there are now 40 unfilled vacancies and 20 officers still in training, leaving TPD at roughly 80 percent of its full operational capacity.

The force is green, too - Maddox said more than 70 percent of patrol officers have less than five years of experience.

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So, what's the problem?

Maddox and others have long pushed for Tuscaloosa to further develop its experience economy, but those experiences have to be kept safe, which requires officers working mandatory overtime shifts to police football games, Amphitheater concerts, crowded bar districts and much more. With each unfilled vacancy, the remaining officers must do more to cover those unmet responsibilities.

That's one head of the beast - another is the police department's retirement plan. The most sought-after perk of almost any government job in the state is enrollment into the Retirement Systems of Alabama. Tuscaloosa Police and Fire employees are instead enrolled into a plan created locally in 1959. It's hard to draw police away from RSA enrollment, and hard to keep officers away from it as agencies across the state try to draw them away from Tuscaloosa.

The city has committed to converting police and fire into the RSA by 2026, but that's hardly a solution to a current crisis.

Finally, there's officer pay. According to a presentation from Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox Tuesday, TPD ranks No. 8 in the state for average police salary. Even just locally, the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff's Office pays more and the University of Alabama Police Department just announced the highest police pay in the region by far. 

(City of Tuscaloosa)
(City of Tuscaloosa)

"If I can have a base salary that's higher and get more time off, that's a tough dynamic to compete against for the city of Tuscaloosa," Maddox said.

Complicating matters, TPD has exacting standards for its officers, who must pass physical and mental aptitude tests, background checks, drug tests and polygraph psychological exams and then train for a full year before they become non-probationary.

Blankley said those hiring and training standards are non-negotiable. He said cutting corners on the officers you hire or how they are trained is "how you end up on CNN."

The city has already OK'd sign-on bonuses, voted to allow officers to take home TPD vehicles and committed to the RSA conversion. They haven't moved the needle.

On Tuesday, Maddox suggested the council approve a near-immediate $10,000 retention bonus for existing non-probationary police officers.

If approved, the city would give those police the bonus lump sum within the next few months but require them to sign a agreement committing to work for the city of Tuscaloosa for the next two years or else pay back the bonus.

Maddox and Chief Blankley called the proposal a Band-Aid only meant to stop the bleeding until bigger problems like the retirement program and mandatory overtime can be meaningfully addressed.

"This is not a long-term solution," Maddox said. "This is about trying to make certain we give the council and the police department time to really look at how we adjust to the new and evolving dynamic in law enforcement itself, and the pay and compensation surrounding it."

The bonuses would cost more than $3 million, but more than half of that could be funded by money TPD is not spending on its currently vacant positions.

Blankley said around half a dozen officers have already interviewed at UAPD, where Maddox said they stand to make more than $20,000 a year more than they do at TPD. The city can't afford to lose any of them.

"I'm not going to sit up here and act like $10,000 is going to fix all this, it's not," Blankley said. "But I do know police officers and if they've got a project at home or they're looking to buy something, this could be enough to keep them here."

The council will weigh the proposal and could vote on it two weeks from now.

Stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread for updates on the matter as they develop.

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