Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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Sheriff continues to emphasize staffing shortages as commissioners prepare for county’s next budget

An annual report to the county’s board of commissioners provided Alamance County’s sheriff with an opportune moment to reflect on a year’s worth of danger, drama, and derring-do in the field.

But sheriff Terry Johnson also used this update to remind the commissioners about his agency’s recent issues with staffing, which have prompted the county to issue a series of pay raises in the hope they would the sheriff’s office an edge in efforts to recruit and retain personnel.

In his appearance before the commissioners on Monday, Johnson conceded that he currently has 8 vacancies among the 153 positions he has been allocated for sworn deputies. He also reported 43 openings in his detention division, which likewise fields a 153-person force of detention officers and civilian staff members.

See sheriff’s full PowerPoint presentation to the commissioners

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with statistics from 2022 HERE


In highlighting these figures, Johnson tried to assure the commissioners that his intent isn’t to lobby for additional posts in the county’s next annual budget.

“I’m not here asking for more people; I’m asking to be able to keep what I’ve got,” he insisted. “I have a responsibility of protecting the citizens and their property. But you have a responsibility to give us what we need. I’m not hounding you for anything right now, but I’m telling you to please think about that.”

Johnson went on to assert that, even if his current force was up to full strength, it would still fall short of the staffing levels that the FBI recommends for local law enforcement. He pointed out that the federal agency currently suggests a quota of 2.8 law enforcement officers for every 1,000 residents. By that measure, he said that his patrol division should be fielding 182 positions rather than the 153 which it actually has.

Johnson alluded to an even greater imbalance in his detention division, which houses federal detainees on behalf of the U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in addition to the county’s own inmates. The sheriff argued that, based on the FBI’s staffing suggestions, the 153 posts in this division ought to be scaled up to 478 in order to manage all the detainees under its charge.

In either case, the sheriff said that his detention division’s existing staff has been stretched well beyond its theoretical limits due to its 43 unfilled positions. He argued that the resulting shortage of manpower has put his remaining jailers at risk of assault from opportunistic inmates who take advantage of their diverted attention. He said that, in the past year alone, members of his detention staff suffered 10 attacks as they struggled to get a handle on the 6,897 local inmates and the 1,293 federal detainees who passed through the jail.

“We need more help,” the sheriff went on to contend, “and if we don’t get, it’s going to put me in a position where I’ll have to stop dealing with the federal government on holding its people.”

Johnson’s complaints about staffing were somewhat undermined by another statistic, which showed a marked improvement in its turnover rate during the past year.

According to figures that the sheriff submitted to the commissioners, his office was able to hire 33 new employees in 2022, while it bid farewell to 27 others. This 6-person net gain compares favorably with the figures from 2021, when the sheriff’s office brought in 26 new hires amid the departures of 42 veteran staff members – a net loss of 16 employees.

The reversal of this outward flow may seem to validate a succession of pay raises that the county has implemented over the past couple of years to help the sheriff’s office recruit and retain more employees. The latest of these hikes came in December, when Alamance County’s manager Heidi York announced a $5,000 pay raise for every deputy and detention officer in Johnson’s employ in response to an even more generous raise that the city of Burlington had extended to its police officers. Although York assured the commissioners that the lapsed salaries in the sheriff’s current budget would suffice to cover the raises she authorized, there was an understanding among the commissioners that the increase would require additional funds in the county’s next budget.

The sheriff, for his part, didn’t say anything about these pay raises during oral report to the commissioners. Nor did he mention the recent improvement that his agency has seen in its turnover rate. This trend nevertheless snagged the attention of the board’s chairman, John Paisley, Jr., who declared that the sheriff’s office seems to have “turned around” its staffing situation as he pored over the data that Johnson had shared with the commissioners.

In response to Paisley’s observation, Johnson tried to ward off a potential move by the commissioners in light of his agency’s recent success in retention and recruitment.

“I was hearing through the grapevine – I don’t know if this is true or not – that the commissioners were considering freezing those open positions or taking them away,” he said. “I’m asking you not to take them away. Leave me about 15, and if we have more [funds], let’s unfreeze them as we go. ‘Cause if we don’t, it’s going to get a lot worse in our detention center, and I am responsible for having those men and women go home to their families without having their head beat in.”

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