The Town of Signal Mountain has a problem.
Although the police department for the Tennessee town of about 8,000 is authorized to have 16 officers, over the past couple of years it's had a staffing shortage, town manager Boyd Veal said.
"We're really having a consistent and ongoing issue with turnover at the patrol level, where most of the time, we're not at full staff," said Veal, who previously served as police chief. "It varies whether we'll be one, two, three officers short at times, but it's almost like we're in a constant hiring process to maintain a full complement of officers."
The town government has begun taking steps to address the turnover issue, Mayor Bill Lusk said. In addition to studying police pay in surrounding municipalities, the town hopes to determine in real dollars the cost to recruit, train and then lose an officer, he said.
"We want to find out exactly where we stand, what the market is, to help us determine if we should or should not increase pay," Lusk said. "And having that information about what it costs us to lose an officer will help in the cost justification process as well."
Part of the problem is that there is no set pace for officers to advance up the pay range, Veal said. Although Signal has the highest midpoint pay level among surrounding departments, getting to that point depends on officer evaluations and whether the town can afford raises.
And Signal Mountain has the lowest starting pay for patrol officers among local departments at $31,116. The next closest is Red Bank, whose starting pay of $33,563 is nearly 8 percent higher than Signal Mountain's.
The last few officers Signal has lost have been to Red Bank or Hamilton County, Veal said.
Given the numbers, Signal's high turnover rate makes sense, said Maggi McLean Duncan, executive director of the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police.
"If it's the lowest-paying place, it's not hard to make a decision not to be there," Duncan said.
Entry-level officers have less time invested in the community, Duncan said, and "if you're already at that low of a pay scale ... making 10 percent more is a lot of money."
Veal said he expects to lose ambitious officers to larger departments, but added that it was "more problematic" to lose them to similar towns with better pay scales.
"I think that Boyd Veal will kindly say that I've stolen about half of his officers over the last couple of years," said Tim Christol, Red Bank's chief of police.
Because Red Bank has different law enforcement activities than Signal Mountain does, officers might view the transfer as a "career growth step," Christol said. In turn, he said, he loses experienced officers to larger agencies.
East Ridge Police Chief J.R. Reed said his department has more trouble with losing officers to larger departments around the five- to eight-year mark because of a lack of advancement opportunities.
But some departments don't have as much trouble keeping officers.
Lookout Mountain, Tenn., has a joint fire and police department with 16 officers who have both fire and police duties. Eight officers also are trained EMTs.
Lookout Mountain starts officers out at $40,000 a year, but as a small department in a mainly residential district, there is not much room for advancement and no incentive pay is offered for time in service, police Chief Randall Bowden said.
However, although the department just hired two new people, it hadn't had any new officers for four years before that.
"A lot of us, we come there and we stay there," Bowden said.
Soddy-Daisy, which has the second-highest starting pay for law enforcement after Lookout Mountain, also is a place where officers choose to stay, police Chief Phillip Hamrick said.
The Soddy-Daisy Police Department has lost only three officers over the past four years, one of whom transferred to the city's public works department, Hamrick said. Part of the department's attraction is good benefits, as well as a supportive city government, he added.
"Most people just want to make a difference, and want to be allowed to," Hamrick said. "And that's what we've done up here. We let our officers go. We let them run with their own cases."
Hamrick said the department's 2012 clearance rate for overall crimes was almost 71 percent, a result of the officers' investigative freedom and support of the city government.
Opportunities for advanced training and the "tight-knit community" are two other reasons why Soddy-Daisy is a good place to settle, patrol Officer Jerry Workman said.
"It's that everybody in Soddy-Daisy knows somebody," said Workman, who has been with that department since 2001. He began his patrol career at Red Bank in 1995 after spending almost nine years after high school in dispatch.
"We know who lives here, we know where, for the most part we know what you drive, we know where your kids go. And we get along with all the citizens of Soddy-Daisy in that fashion, and I think that's what helps," he said.
Similarly, Collegedale doesn't see much turnover for its full-time positions, Assistant Police Chief James Hardeman said.
A lot of factors play into police turnover rates -- issues such as the working environment, support from elected officials, higher-ups and fellow officers, and training opportunities, Hardeman said.
"When I first came to Collegedale in '96, it was kind of like a place where people would come to get their academy training and move on," he said. "In my opinion, we have kind of become a destination instead of a starting point. People want to come here, and want to stay here and be here."
Veal said that, although the Signal Mountain Police Department has turnover issues, it will continue to deliver the service that's expected as the town continues to seek a solution.
"We have to look at our whole approach to pay and benefits and see exactly where we stack up, and then formulate a plan from there," Veal said.
Contact staff writer Alex Harris at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592.