ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. — City council members unanimously approved $6,500 pay raises for all Elizabeth City police officers.
The decision Monday came after Interim Police Chief Phillip Webster said 28 officers resigned in the last 13 months, with all but one of those being resignations.
According to Webster, the number is growing, as two officers informed him of their pending departure earlier this week.
In a city council meeting, the interim chief told elected officials the department risked needing to contract with the Pasquotank County Sheriff’s Office if the issue goes unaddressed.
“In my 29 years of law enforcement experience, I’ve never seen a department in such a precarious situation,” said Webster.
In their exit interviews, Webster said departing officers gave three consistent reasons for their resignations: leadership, lack of trust in elected officials and most importantly, pay.
“The department suffered greatly during the civil unrest in April 2021,” said Webster. “On top of this, the longtime chief of police departed leading a leadership void. The department became fractured into two camps centering around the manner in which the protests were handled.”
In April 2021, Pasquotank County deputies shot and killed Andrew Brown Jr. while serving arrest warrants.
The incident birthed months-long protests. Elizabeth City police were not involved in the shooting, but city leaders said the aftermath forced their officers to work long hours and carried a heavy, emotional toll.
“They took a beating,” said city manager Montre Freeman. “And all they were trying to do was keep the city from burning.”
Longtime police chief Eddie Buffalo left the department in late 2021 to become secretary of the North Carolina Public Safety Department.
In August 2022, Captain Larry James stepped down as interim police chief, and Webster took on the role.
The vote also approved a restructuring of the department and created new leadership positions, and provided funding to boost incoming salaries to support recruitment efforts.
In an interview with 13News Now Wednesday, Mayor Kirk Rivers said the city needed to raise police officer salaries to be competitive.
“Because we need trained and seasoned officers,” he said.
The department hasn’t hired an experienced officer since October 2021, said Webster.
Prior to the vote, Webster said he researched law enforcement agencies around the state and found Elizabeth City among the lowest.
According to Webster, starting pay for an officer at Elizabeth City State University stands at roughly $42,000 per year, and the city paid its starting officers about $6,000 less than that.
The pay increase will cost the city nearly $300,000, and it will be funded by the remaining money from unused salaries in the department.
Webster said officers also expressed a lack of trust in elected leaders to have their backs, specifically “if the use of force becomes the center of political discourse.”
Prior to being elected as mayor, Rivers was one of the main organizers of the protests.
“We just want the best for all and hope that a situation like that never takes place in our community again,” said Rivers. “We’re going to continue to push for training, continue to push that our police officers have quality pay and work environment.”