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ST. LOUIS — The city could use more police officers — on that most City Hall officials can agree. The problem is finding enough recruits, while keeping current officers from quitting.

Some city officials have cited the residency requirement as an impediment to hiring officers. At one time, the pay in the city may have made policing in a place known for its violent crime rate worth it. But a Post-Dispatch review of salary data shows the pay difference between the city and other jurisdictions, including St. Louis County, has narrowed in recent years.

In fiscal year 2016, median pay for city police officers was $55,809. In 2019, it was $64,195, according to data provided by the city. In 2016, median pay in the county police department was $48,256. Four years later, it’s $63,856, county records show.

St. Louis County police Lt. Colby Dolly said the sharp increase in the county reflected a burst of hiring since 2016.

“County government was not giving raises, and they were hiring new people all the time,” Dolly said. Starting pay for a police officer in the county is $48,256. Under a new pay matrix, which went into effect when a new agreement was signed with the St. Louis County Police Association, police officers are receiving scheduled raises.

The city of St. Louis will enter negotiations with the St. Louis Police Officers Association for a new contract in September.

As of the end of June, the city is down 147 officers from the cap of 1,329 it can employ. And the number of unfilled positions is steadily growing as more cops resign or retire. There are 71 fewer cops at the St. Louis Police Department this year than there were in 2016, according to city data, and four fewer this year than last.

Meanwhile, the county is gaining officers. In 2016, 676 officers patrolled in the county, according to an analysis of salary data by the Post-Dispatch. Now there are 766 officers.

Pay is top issue

In recent budget hearings, Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards and Chief John Hayden focused on the city’s residency requirement, calling it an obstacle to recruiting.

Spurred by those arguments, the Board of Aldermen is considering a measure to give city voters the option to lift the requirement for many cops by putting the question on the November 2020 ballot. Final action on the ordinance has been delayed until at least September.

Jeff Roorda, business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers Association, said rank-and-file officers have identified pay as their No. 1 concern, not the residency requirement. The union surveyed its members on the question when advocating for the passage of Proposition P.

“It’s definitely wages,” he said. “The second one is working conditions,” which includes safety concerns caused by a shortage of personnel.

In the last four years, while the city force lost officers, the St. Louis County Police Department hired nearly 100, according to a Post-Dispatch analysis of county salary data. Median pay increased for officers there, too.

Raises for both county and city officers were tied to the passage of Proposition P, first in the county and a few months later by voters in the city. County police used the money for officer raises, body cameras and two new officer units, where there will be two officers in a car, instead of one, patrolling in certain areas of the county, Dolly said.

City police have used Prop P funds for officer raises and improving benefits. They plan to use next year’s funds to hire more officers, continue boosting benefits packages and purchase new fleet equipment, according to city budget documents.

Other departments outside St. Louis County compete to hire city police officers. Roorda mentioned the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department specifically, where median law enforcement pay this year is $56,332, according to the newspaper’s analysis of salary data. More than half a dozen St. Louis officers have left the city to work for that agency, Roorda said.

Municipalities with large police departments, like St. Charles or O’Fallon, Missouri, can draw city cops away, too. In St. Charles, median pay for police officers this year is $70,327, according to a Post-Dispatch analysis of salary data. In O’Fallon, it’s $61,547.

The hiring problem in law enforcement isn’t limited to the city of St. Louis. There were 102,000 fewer police officers patrolling America’s streets between May 2017 and May 2018, the most recent available data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Wall Street Journal reported that even the FBI is having trouble recruiting enough people to be special agents. At the end of last year, the Washington Post also reported about nationwide drops in applications for police jobs.

At the end of last year, Hayden touted lower violent crime in the city. He credited heavier police presence in crime hot spots for the drop. Other strategies contributed, including cracking down on open-air drug markets, assistance from the FBI and DEA, more surveillance cameras and encouraging community policing.

But the trend has not held. Current St. Louis crime statistics show more homicides so far this year than at the same time last year. Crime is up in all violent crime categories, except rape.

With the passage of Prop P in the city and county came expectations for a drop in crime and overall safer communities. The extra dollars can fund what Rick Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology at University of Missouri-St. Louis, says is most needed: More police officers, and better pay for those officers.

What the public expects from officers and what they’re paid don’t match, Rosenfeld said. The pay gap isn’t about what St. Louis officers are paid compared to other departments in the region; it’s more about what is asked of police officers.

“We ask them to behave as professionals and yet we don’t pay them professional level salaries,” Rosenfeld said. “We ask them to, in addition to all of the traditional policing, become experts in de-escalation techniques, implicit bias, community relations and a great deal of social and human services. We’re asking more of officers than we have in the past, and we’re not paying them commensurate with what we’re asking them to do.”

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