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Retention Tools of UNH PD Amidst a National Police Shortage

“We try to find how their goals can mesh with the departments goals and move everybody forward together,” said Francis Weeks.
Sophia Schlichtmann
Sign on the outside of the UNH PD building at 18 Waterworks Road, Durham, NH

Police departments across the nation are facing issues with staffing and the stricter hiring requirements of U.S. college law enforcement has impacted their ability to hire and retain officers. In wake of the national police shortage, the University of New Hampshire Police Department (UNH PD) has emphasized their resources to aid police retention: access to free education and attempts to enmesh the goals of the department with its officers and dispatchers. 

 A survey by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) found a 3.48% decrease in the total number of officers within police departments between 2020 and 2021. Eight out of the 183 departments surveyed were university or college law enforcement. 

“We have a much more diverse community [at UNH] that represents a cross section of not just the country, but the globe. We have to really look at how we do our training and our communication skills, to embrace that diversity,” said Francis Weeks, the operations division commander and attorney prosecutor for UNH PD. He has worked as a police officer for 26 years, and has worked for UNH PD for 14 years. 

Each New Hampshire police officer goes through training at the New Hampshire Police Academy (the one police academy for the entire state). UNH PD currently has 18 officers in total. To work on the force of UNH PD one must be a full-time certified officer. Once an officer is hired at UNH PD they must undergo nine months of supervision. An officer hired in September of 2023 would not be off and self-sufficient until the summer of 2024. 

“Generally every police department is down a few officers. We do have open positions here, but we’re not hiring right now. We’re not hiring because there is a budget crunch right now for the university. However, we are hiring for dispatch and campus safety officers,” explained Weeks.  

In hiring its officers, UNH PD utilizes a modified version of the traditional police oral board. The traditional model of a police oral board is composed of some members of a police department, and one or two members of the community. UNH PD has separated the traditional model of a police oral board into two panels: one that is made up of police and one that is made up of community members from the UNH community. In order to be hired by UNH PD, an officer must be approved by first the community board, and then the police board. 

Weeks stated that the national police shortage has resulted in many police departments being desperate for candidates, and hiring those who meet minimal standards. He stated that while there is still a rigorous hiring process for officers across the nation, many departments do not look for the nuances of how their candidates will fit into the community, as UNH does through their oral panel. 

Weeks expressed that it is better for police departments to be short-handed on the amount of officers they have than to hire an officer who doesn’t fit within the community. He said that hiring an officer who is not approved by a community oral board may not end up wanting to stay in their department, and may cause problems within the community due to how they are received. 

The average amount of time an officer stays on the force of UNH PD is three to five years as opposed to the entire duration of their career. 

“The goal in the past was to keep someone [on the force] for their entire career. We’re [UNH PD] pretty much at peace and embrace the reality that we’re not going to do that,” said Weeks.

According to Weeks, it is the department’s advantage to push an officer’s time at UNH PD closer to five years. He stated that the department strives to build the experience of officers on the force and ultimately acknowledge the fact they may decide to go somewhere else. 

“[It’s] about the balance of investing in people and making them feel like they don’t waste their time here,” said Weeks. 

Competition with the private sector is a challenge police departments face in obtaining officers. 

“In the past we used to lose officers to other departments for higher pay. We’re losing officers to the private sector right now. That’s a new retention and recruitment challenge that we’re facing as we are competing with the private sector for a better quality of life,” said Weeks. 

He stated that more people are starting to seek out jobs that are more flexible, or pursue degrees instead of going directly into the police force. 

For UNH PD officers interested in pursuing higher education, they are eligible for a cost-free attendance to UNH.

“One of the advantages we have for recruitment retention is academic benefit. We have hired some officers who have decided to get their college education while being police officers,” said Weeks.

 He emphasized that access to cost-free attendance is another retention tool as it helps the department to keep officers. Pursuing an education at UNH PD means that officers are able to graduate with no student loans, make money and gain experience on the police force for their five to six years that they are part time students. 

Felix Siegels, a patrol division, field training officer and firearms instructor for UNH PD is currently pursuing a degree in psychology with a focus in emergency management while on the force. He has worked for UNH PD for three years and has had two more years of experience prior working for a part time department.

“The field [psychology] is relevant to the work I do, and I enjoy learning about people and why they act and do what they do. Understanding the reason behind someone’s actions can be very beneficial in the police realm and can help me work out a situation to help someone more quickly,” said Siegels.

There has been much discussion in recent years of how police handle situations in which someone is struggling with mental illness. 

“What keeps me up at night is our actions with the mentally ill who have not committed a crime. That is the challenge of our time right now,” stated Weeks.

He emphasized the importance of police departments having emotionally intelligent officers who know how to de-escalate situations involving a person who is mentally ill with the proper attention and care.

“The administration has been very supportive of my decision to take classes. All officers are encouraged to use their tuition benefit while they work here,” said Siegels. “Any further education a department can offer is great and should be utilized by the officers.”

While UNH PD is not hiring for police officers, they are hiring for open positions in the dispatch. UNH PD hires dispatchers into the patrol division. Three of the current officers at UNH PD were former dispatchers who left behind dispatch positions in the department. Weeks stated that while UNH PD would like to hire more officers, hiring dispatch positions is their critical need. 

There are currently four full-time, and seven part-time dispatchers at UNH PD. The dispatch center currently has two vacant full time positions. They are hiring for Public Safety Dispatchers. 

“Many dispatchers are using the job as a stepping-stone to become police officers, firefighters, medical professionals or other public safety professions. This presents challenges in retention of personnel; most dispatch centers do not have opportunities for career development within the profession,” said Mary Sylvia, the assistant director of public safety technology and emergency communications for UNH PD. Sylvia has been a dispatcher for 27 years. 

New Hampshire currently has no specific certifications for dispatchers. The New Hampshire Emergency Dispatch Association (NHEDA) is working to change this in the legislature. 

“The lack of professional standards diminishes the profession and perpetuates the assumption that this [dispatch] is not a long-time career field,” said Sylvia.

Dispatchers are often the first people to respond to a police situation. Sylvia expressed that another challenge for dispatchers can be the lack of closure. 

“Some dispatchers have a difficult time when they handle a particularly challenging, emotional or traumatic incident and they do not have the same opportunities to know the outcome, or context that may help in emotional or psychological processing,” she said. 

Systems in place to help with the mental health of UNH PD dispatchers are mental health professionals within the department who are specifically prepared to help public safety professionals, a peer-to-peer initiative for dispatchers who need a confidential outlet in mentally and emotionally processing trauma that the job can bring through the organization NH 9-1-1,  and UNH’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP). 

“Dispatching is an underrated job. They’re the first people someone talks to when they call for the police. A lot of dispatchers are like first line negotiators where they’ve had situations where someone wanted to hurt themselves, or were in crisis, and they’ve had to negotiate over the phone. There is a mental health component that we have to be very attentive to,” said Weeks. “Everybody focuses on officer wellness but dispatch wellness is very important as well.”

Weeks expressed pride in his department.

“We do a good job of training officers up on the fundamentals that are cross-applicable to no matter what department they work for,” he said.

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