Things are looking up for the Oakwood Police Department.
On July 22, the city approved a $9,000 pay raise for starting officers, which took effect Aug. 1, and what a difference it’s made in being able to recruit new hires.
The department had 11 open positions in June – missing nearly half its police force given that it needs 24 for a full staff.
The shortage was serious enough that the Hall County Sheriff’s Office was helping the department respond to overnight calls. But that will likely end next week after the department hires another officer, said Oakwood Police Chief Tim Hatch.
Now, the department has only six open positions and a number of candidates who are set to undergo training or perform physical fitness tests.
“We’ve seen a lot of interest in coming here, and a lot of good, strong candidates,” Hatch said. “Ten to almost 20 years of experience is starting to be a normal level of experience on the applications we’re getting.”
The starting pay had been $35,402 annually, but that wasn’t enough to stay competitive with neighboring agencies. Starting officers now stand to make $44,607 a year.
Police funding accounts for about one-third of the city’s $8.32 million budget, according to City Manager B.R. White. The pay raise will cost the city an additional $227,274, assuming the department is fully staffed.
Hatch said he had begun to worry that his department was unattractive for other reasons, but the shortage really did come down to one variable: money.
“It's also kind of reassuring to know that the problem we faced was literally just not being competitive with other agencies,” he said. “Once we got competitive, then the floodgates opened back up again. So it's not like people don't want to work here. It's just that everybody's going to chase the dollar.”
But it wasn’t pay that attracted 28-year-old police officer Chase Weber, who came from the Gwinnett County Police Department. He said he is technically taking a pay cut, though Oakwood's “robust” benefits package more or less makes up for it.
“It’s more the culture than it is the pay,” he said. “Walk in and the chief of the police department says, ‘Hey,’ calls you by your first name and says, ‘Morning, how are you? How was your weekend? How are your kids doing?’”
Hatch said there’s a “different feeling in the air” these days.
“You can just see the happy faces,” he said. “I look forward to … standing back up on our own two feet again.”