CHESAPEAKE, Va. — Author's note: The video above is on file from a story on the police officer shortage in Hampton Roads that aired on May 2, 2022.
Miya Mitchell-Bray decided during the groundswell social justice movement of 2020 that it was time to be the change she wanted in her community. Donning a Chesapeake Police Department uniform and badge, Mitchell-Bray recently completed her first year patrolling the streets of the city she calls home.
As a 31-year-old Black woman, she said current negative public perceptions of police encouraged her to become an officer.
“With everything going on today in law enforcement, I felt the time was now to join the police department and be the change that I want to see,” Mitchell-Bray said.
Across Hampton Roads, police departments are facing double-digit staffing shortages after the pandemic saw many workers reconsider careers and the social justice movement placed greater scrutiny on law enforcement. But Chesapeake is among those with success recruiting new officers.
Between July 2021 and April 2022, the Chesapeake Police Department hired 41 officers — 37 of whom were new officers and four lateral transfers from neighboring departments. The department’s number of new hires is second in the region only to Virginia Beach, which hired 86 officers between July and February.
RECRUITING GOES BEYOND PAY
To help with recruiting, the Chesapeake Police Department implemented a 5% pay increase for all positions in January. New hires make $45,213 a year, which is bumped up to $50,326 after an officer is certified following graduation from the academy.
But Chesapeake’s recruiting success goes beyond pay, according to department spokesperson Leo Kosinski.
“The competitive pay has helped with getting lateral transfers lately,” Kosinski said. “However, it is more word of mouth from happy officers sharing their experience with others and how the culture of our specific department is different than other departments.”
Mitchell-Bray echoed Kosinski, stating she chose Chesapeake because it was one of the only area departments that works 8-hour shifts instead of 12-hour shifts and has its own academy.
“That was a major decision for me because I have children, and I am the primary parent because my husband is active-duty military,” Mitchell-Bray said.
The process for a new hire to complete the academy and become a certified law enforcement officer averages 4-6 months. The most challenging aspect of recruiting is retaining applicants through that lengthy time frame, saidDupree Foster, recruiter for the Chesapeake Police Department.
“We have less applicants overall but we have more applicants who are looking to make a career out of law enforcement,” Foster said.
To improve the likelihood of making it through the hiring process, Chesapeake police officers meet with applicants on a weekly basis to mentor them and offer mental and physical fitness coaching.
“But we are not looking at lowering our standards just to fill positions,” Foster said. “We need to find people who want to do this for the right reasons, have a decent background and can pass our physical standards as well.”
Prior to entering the academy, Mitchell-Bray stayed in contact with a recruiter and her assigned background investigator, who gave her workout tips and shared personal experiences with her.
“They provided as many answers as they could about the academy experience,” Mitchell-Bray said. “I took their advice, however you are never really ready for the academy of the unknown.”
FINDING THE BEST FIT
As of April, Chesapeake has 43 officer vacancies out of 404 authorized sworn positions — leaving the agency about 11% understaffed. For comparison, the neighboring Norfolk and Portsmouth police departments are both roughly 30% below authorized sworn staffing levels.
Chesapeake is not the only department to see some success recruiting new hires in recent months.
The Hampton Police Division cut its vacancies in half between July 2021 and April 2022, filling 22 of its 44 open positions. Around that time, the division raised base pay for all ranks. The salary for new recruits increased from $38,618 to $43,297 and from $45,213 to $48,800 for certified officers.
To reach a broader swath of potential new hires, the city’s police division partnered with the city’s marketing program to increase its digital outreach footprint, said a Hampton police spokesperson Cpl. Ernest Williams.
A spokesperson with Hampton’s marketing team said the police division’s recruiting information is included in the city’s daily E-newsletter and is shared across the city’s main social media accounts.
“Generally, our reach is more broad across the city and hits different people than the police accounts do,” said Hampton spokesperson Robin McCormick.
Recruiters also regularly go into local schools and colleges and give presentations.
“This is two-fold as it improves the perception of police work with young people and we are simultaneously building a future applicant pool,” Williams said.
Applicants should consider the type of police work they want to get into and make sure they understand whether a specific local police department is the best fit, Williams said.
“For instance, should an applicant express interest in flying a helicopter or participating in a mounted unit, we will certainly try and entice them to re-evaluate their direction because HPD doesn’t have their resources, but we will point them in the right direction if that is the path they wish to utilize,” Williams said.
Mitchell-Bray said she aspires to become a school resource officer, one of more than two dozen specialty units available with the Chesapeake department.
As area police departments clamor for applicants, Mitchell-Bray says potential new hires should remember that a job in law enforcement is not for everyone.
In responding to calls for service since she graduated from the academy in February 2021, Mitchell-Bray has come face to face with some of the same negative perceptions that inspired her to join the department.
“Being a woman of color, I am told I’m a sellout or on the wrong side,” she said. “I used to take it personal, but I had to remember why I chose this profession.”
During her first year on the job, Mitchell-Bray said she found the most important quality to have as a law enforcement officer is integrity.
“A career in law enforcement takes a certain amount of love and compassion for others,” she said. “It is not just about fighting crime. You have to know your neighbors.”