Forks Police Department down to one officer

Cities, counties across state struggle in hiring

FORKS — Mike Rowley is a very busy man.

In addition to studying remotely for his bachelor of applied science degree in behavioral healthcare from Peninsula College, he coaches youth football, baseball and basketball. And then there’s his day job as the chief of police for the City of Forks — where for the last month he’s been the only uniformed officer in a department that is supposed to have five.

“This isn’t the first time I’ve worked solo,” Rowley said. “But it’s nice to have a team behind you.”

This doesn’t mean Forks is without police when Rowley is off duty. The city has memoranda of understanding with other jurisdictions to provide law enforcement, so it is never without police presence.

“I don’t want anyone to get any ideas, like ‘Well, we’ll wait ‘til he gets home and then we’ll go out and do random stupid stuff,’” Rowley said.

Like cities and counties across Washington, Forks is struggling to hire police officers.

The problem is rooted in multiple factors including a diminishing pool of applicants, a tightening labor market, increasing public scrutiny and negative attitudes toward police, lengthy and difficult training requirements and pay that isn’t in line with work demands.

“Every jurisdiction in the state, from the smallest to the largest cities, is trying to deal with police and law enforcement recruitment and retention,” said City Attorney Rod Fleck. “It’s universal.”

When asked to identify their police department’s greatest challenges in the coming year, the 143 cities responding to an Association of Washington Cities survey this fall named hiring new officers (70 percent) and retaining its existing force (66 percent).

According to the survey, 84 percent of cities said police departments were their most difficult to recruit for (the next most difficult was public works at 66 percent).

Central to Forks’s challenge is its officers are paid much lower than those employed by other law enforcement outfits. An entry level patrol officer with the Forks Police Department earns $24.13 and hour ($50,174 a year). A sergeant earns $33.49 ($69,655 a year).

The Port Angeles Police Department, according to job openings posted on its website, is paying entry level and lateral level police officers $40.0640 to $47.709 an hour ($83,334.04-$99,235.74 a year). According to its website, the Clallam County Sheriff’s Office is paying patrol deputies $63,517-$81,944.04 annually.

Rowley, who has been Forks’ uniformed police chief since 2017 and worked as an officer in the department from 2009 to 2016, said maintaining a full staff had always been a challenge, but that it had been particularly difficult over the past five years.

“People who have worked for me say, ‘Hey, I loved working for you,’” Rowley said, “But when places offer you six or seven dollars an hour more, I can’t fight that. I understand that.”

An entry level position at Clallam Bay Corrections Center, for example, pays $31.55-$33.98 per hour, or $5,490 to $5,913 a month according to job openings posted on its website. After one year, monthly pay rises from $5,913 to $6,368 a month.

“The prison pays $31 an hour for an 18-year-old kid out of high school with no training and my highest-paid officer on the road gets $30 an hour after he’s been there for awhile,” Rowley said.

The city is currently in discussions with the bargaining units representing police department and Forks Correctional Facility staff.

“That gives us the opportunity to look at some of the underlying wage questions when trying to look at where our competitors are and what our comparable jurisdictions are under collective bargaining and binding arbitration,” Fleck said.

Rowley said he recognized Forks’ financial position, which had been affected by the destruction of the Olympic Cedar Products mill by fire in 2018 and the shrinking of timber industry in general.

“I’ve been working with the city to try to come up with some creative ways to find money in the current budget,” Rowley said.”With us have not having our mill system, we don’t have that income.”

The police department’s preliminary 2024 budget of $980,000 includes wages and benefits, as well as all other operational expenses like officer training and fuel. (The Forks Correctional Facility, which is also run by the city, has a separate budget from the police department.)

“One of the biggest things that people aren’t aware of is the insurance pool that we’re required to pay into,” Rowley said. “Our insurance costs are significant. I mean, they raise them $20-30,000 a year.”

Rowley said that while the Forks department could not match the pay of other employers like the state Department of Corrections, he said it offered advantages to those who wanted to work in a small town with a forest in its backyard and a community that appreciated law enforcement.

“Our community is very supportive,” Rowley said. “I know that people stand behind us.”

________

Reporter Paula Hunt can be reached at Paula.Hunt@peninsuladailynews.com

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