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Police officer shortages: Hampton Roads law enforcement working to fill gaps in their units

Police departments across the seven cities are down hundreds of sworn police officers. It's now a race against rising gun violence to fill those vacancies.

NORFOLK, Va. — There's no doubt Hampton Roads has seen an uptick in gun violence over the past couple of years. However, the problem isn't just rising gun violence. 

Now, police departments are struggling with keeping sworn officers on staff.

“I’m on patrol right now. I’m fresh out of the academy," Officer Aaron Kempf told 13News Now.

He's one of Newport News Police Department's latest recruits. 

“This is my second month that we’re going on right now," he said. "So, I’m as new as can be.”

Kempf’s enthusiasm stems from his father’s commitment to law enforcement.

“My father worked with the Newport News Police Department his whole career. As I got older, I really understood the value of what he was doing and putting it back in the community," he said.

Despite Kempf's can-do attitude and excitement to get out in the field, not everyone in the line of duty shares a positive perspective.

Police departments across Hampton Roads have been seeing shortages in their staffing, particularly in their patrol units involving officers who have to go out in the field during difficult shifts.

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The Norfolk Police Department is seeing the biggest gap in sworn officers, with 228 vacancies in April 2022. 

Virginia Beach's police department still needs to hire 93 sworn officers. Chief Paul Neudigate said he had many recruits going through the academy, but he said it's possible not every single one of them will make it through.

Portsmouth Police Department quickly follows behind Virginia Beach, with 75 vacancies. The Hampton Police Divison has about 35 vacancies, according to its March report. The Chesapeake Police Department has 83 department-wide vacancies, 32 of those being sworn officer vacancies. Suffolk police officials said they have about 35 sworn officer vacancies.

Hiring is an area-wide concern.

Earlier this year, Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew said he had 64 sworn officer vacancies. At the end of April, he was waiting to fill 50 of those positions with other officers going through the academy. 

Drew said by August, he should bring in 28 newly sworn officers and another round of 23 recruits in October, if they make it through the academy.

Drew said quite a few officers decided to leave the department over the past couple of years. He said that's due to several reasons, but he saw a significant drop when the death of George Floyd sparked protests across the nation.

RELATED: ODU Survey: Perception of police in Hampton Roads varies by race, city

"We lost some people in our academy classes. Some would say, ‘Chief, this just isn’t for me anymore,'" Drew said. "I saw the number of individuals we're used to seeing apply... they're almost cut in half, and that's concerning."

He said he had to choose which departments to pull officers from to keep up with back-to-back 911 calls.

“We may have to take a drug unit, a narcotics unit, or a gang unit... our community outreach division. We might have to downsize that and put individuals back in patrol. We had to do that with our traffic and K-9 unit," Drew said. "It is very concerning for me -- for the communities -- because at the end of the day, that’s who’s going to suffer the most."

Now, it’s a race against rising gun violence in Hampton Roads. 

Drew said he was bringing in more recruits as quickly as he could, even shortening the academy time period from six months down to four.

However, it’s not just the number of officers he needs on his team. He said he wants to recruit more people with diverse backgrounds.

“We’re fastly approaching the 55 to 45 goal," Drew explained. "We’re probably about 60 to 40 right now.”

Drew said it’s going to take a fresh perspective and a new recruitment effort to bring in new officers. 

Newport News police officials said they were currently recruiting more people to join the academy, which starts this August.

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