Even Western Virginia Has Police Shortages

A criminal justice academy in Salem

by James A. Bacon

Police departments in Virginia’s major urban centers are not the only law enforcement agencies where police officers are quitting in large numbers. Roanoke County in western Virginia saw 28 officers leave during 2020, about one fifth of the department, The Roanoke Times has reported. That was twice the number the department would experience in a normal year. The City of Roanoke has 38 vacancies, about 15% of its force.

Neighboring Montgomery County has lost 26 deputies, about 23% of its manpower over the past 12 months. That compares to only four officers departing in 2019, and two in 2018.

The Town of Christiansburg (in Montgomery County) has similar issues. “In years past we would typically receive between 50 and 100 applications when we advertised an opening,” Assistant Chief Chris Ramsey wrote in an email. “Now we are lucky to get ten or fifteen applicants for multiple openings. Only a fraction of those will meet the minimum qualifications and actually appear for applicant testing.”

The shortages mirror difficulties police departments are having nationally. A survey of nearly 200 departments nationally cited by the Roanoke Times said that resignations were up 18% over the prior year, and retirements had surged 45%. Recruitment and retention has been a chronic problem for police departments and sheriffs offices for years, but manpower issues intensified  last year amidst the George Floyd protests and the defund-the-police rhetoric.

“The perceived lack of support in conjunction with proposed policing reform initiatives such as the elimination of qualified immunity has created an atmosphere where deputies are looking to change careers by seeking employment within the private sector,” Sheriff Hank Partin and Chief Deputy Brad St. Clair told the Roanoke Times in an email.

Bacon’s bottom line: I find these numbers shocking. It would surprise no one to see spiraling police morale in the major metropolitan areas where the anti-police protests were most violent, the anti-police rhetoric the most heated, and police were most likely to held accountable by a new generation of commonwealth attorneys committed to “social justice.”

Roanoke and Montgomery County (where Blacksburg is located) are smaller urban areas where restiveness never approached that seen in Richmond, Portsmouth and Fredericksburg. Moreover, Virginians west of the Blue Ridge are generally are generally more conservative and supportive of law enforcement. Evidently, the debate over police practices in the nation’s biggest cities is having a spillover effect nationally.

Roanoke and Roanoke County are raising pay for public safety personnel and recruiting more aggressively. But it takes time to train new officers. In the meantime, localities are shifting manpower from peripheral assignments such  as animal control and schools to keep more officers in the field. Hopefully, Western Virginia will not experience the same surge in homicides we have seen in Virginia’s major urban centers.