Campus cops protect and scrimp
Vicki Cheng, Staff Writer
(DURHAM, N.C.) -- Tisha D. Hardy, who grew up in Greenville riding around in her father's squad car, has always wanted to be a police officer. She just didn't know what a financial sacrifice it would be.
"When I was making $22,680, my parents were helping me out," Hardy, an officer at N.C. Central University, said of her starting salary. "You can't live on $22,680."
But she took the job in 1999 fresh out of the police academy because she was eager to start her career. Now she protects students and faculty, guards campus buildings and manages traffic.
She also makes the occasional arrest. Once, a suspect got away while she was trying to handcuff him, but she identified him as the guy behind a lot of thefts on campus.
"I put a damper on the larcenies, and I felt good about myself," Hardy said.
In the race to raise police officers' salaries during the tight labor market of the 1990s, one group was left behind: police in the University of North Carolina system. But last year, after a salary study, the Office of State Personnel changed its rules to give universities more leeway to offer competitive wages -- if they had the money.
That change has helped at such places as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where the Public Safety Department is hiring at $29,095 a year. At N.C. State University, the starting salary is $28,000. But NCCU still can't afford to pay starting officers more than about $24,000, said Police Chief McDonald Vick.
So universities still have a hard time competing with municipal police departments and keeping new officers. Raleigh pays $30,610 for entry-level officers, for example, while Durham pays $29,470. So there are fewer officers on some campuses. And the ones who do work are often working overtime.
Working on a college campus isn't the same as working for a city police department. But it can be dangerous, said Derrick Alston, who remembers responding to shootings on or near NCCU's campus. He left the force after less than a year for a job as a detective in the Butner Police Department, which pays $4,000 or $5,000 more, he said.
"Crime happens in college," Alston said. "They have a lot of robberies around there."
Tom Younce, head of the N.C. State Public Safety Department, said campus police face special challenges, too, such as dealing with young adults whose first brush with the law can be an important learning opportunity, or providing more security for campus buildings.
"We've got a nuclear reactor on campus," Younce said. "It does require a much higher level of security. When things go wrong, officers have to be prepared to respond. At the School of Veterinary Medicine last week, we were called to corral a cow that got loose. We had a deer on our railroad tracks."
Then there's basketball traffic and crowd control during athletic events.
Derek Poarch, UNC-CH director of public safety, said it's no surprise that campus police have problems with recruiting and retention.
"When Seattle, Portland and L.A. are recruiting in the Triangle area for police officers, that tells us something," Poarch said. A recent ad in The News & Observer offered a starting salary for a Seattle police officer of $50,172.
"Law enforcement hiring is cyclical," Poarch said. "When the economy is good and the private sector is booming, it's always tougher to find good police applicants. Municipalities realized that you've got to pay salaries somewhat on par to what the private sector is doing. They beat us to the punch, but we're catching up."
Patrick J. McCoy, a human resources team leader in the Office of State Personnel, said law enforcement salaries really took off in the past three years. The latest comprehensive salary study was in 1988 and 1989, although the office makes adjustments every few years.
Until May 2000, the maximum salary universities were allowed to offer rookie officers was $23,000 to $24,000, he said. Now, under an interim pay plan, it's up to $29,095, or whatever the local city police department is paying. The office is still working on new strategies to provide more flexibility in law enforcement pay, he said.
Poarch said $29,095 is still not competitive, when Raleigh is paying $30,610. He had two positions unfilled on his staff, he said recently. And he sympathizes with other campus police chiefs.
"If I was paying $24,000, I couldn't hire anybody," Poarch said.
Maj. Robert Dean of the Duke University Police Department, which pays a starting salary of about $29,000, said Duke can offer good benefits and incentives, such as a tuition discount. But even though the department has only one opening now, supervisors continue to recruit aggressively, because it takes so long to fill any position.
"Our law enforcement tries to pull from the same small labor pool, which makes it difficult for all of us," Dean said.
Younce said NCSU's department has about seven vacancies out of 28 patrol positions. Officers work a lot of overtime to cover shifts, and the Wake County Sheriff's Department assists them, as does a student patrol.
He hopes things improve as the university's human resources staff tries to find ways to increase salaries further, and as staff members develop plans to help the officers with their career growth.
At NCCU, Vick continues to struggle with hiring at $24,000, and he said recently the department was down four positions out of 29. Sometimes only two or three members are working on the squad when there should be four, said Hardy, the campus officer.
"It would always be good to have more manpower, in case we have a big situation," she said. "It's making people work twice as hard."
Hardy has gotten a pretty good raise, so that she's making about $5,000 more 1 1/2 years after she started. Still, there's $434 in rent and $450 for a car payment to worry about each month.
"No, ma'am, I'm not getting compensated enough," Hardy said.
Her dream is to work for the Greenville police, in her hometown, where her father is a police captain.
"I'll probably be with [NCCU] for a little bit," Hardy said. "But probably a couple of years down the road, I will go with another agency that's willing to pay more money."
HOW THEY COMPARE
Starting salaries for entry-level campus and city police officers:
Chapel Hill$28,017 UNC-CH$29,095
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