Despite new equipment, higher pay, departed officer cites morale, retaliation as reasons; Chief denies, says stressful work and defund-the-police are causes
The latest equipment, significant raises and 12-hour shifts with built-in overtime are among the incentives the Henderson Police Department’s leadership has advocated for to help boost the number of sworn officers.
While the Henderson City Commission has approved those and many more premiums for law enforcement—including a $12,000 to $15,000 incentive for officers from other agencies wanting to transfer to HPD—the department continues to struggle with officer retention.
The opinions why vary.
A VICIOUS CYCLE
In the roughly seven months since the city commission approved the $12,000 to $15,000 lateral transfer incentive, HPD has gained two officers. However, within the last nine months, the agency has lost seven.
Henderson Police Chief Sean McKinney declined to give the number of patrol officers currently employed.
“I don’t want to cause alarm and panic,” he said. “At the same time, our squads are functioning with less manpower which is causing more stress and strain on the officers we do have.”
At full staff, McKinney said, there are many opportunities for officers to earn promotions or take on specialized positions, such as with the K-9 unit and the Emergency Response Team.
“But we are so low that everyone is getting pushed toward patrol right now. That’s where the emphasis must be,” he said. “And we are doing everything we can” to increase those numbers.
McKinney said he believes retention issues can be attributed to a combination of things—salaries that don’t compete with surrounding cities and states; a retirement system that isn’t as secure as in previous years; and the backlash from the years in which the defund-the-police movement dominated national media making a law enforcement career less attractive to some.
“Our city commission steps up for us, (when the department requests incentive plans), but city councils and city commissions (in other counties and states) are also doing that,” the chief said.
“We are in a vicious cycle,” he said. “Our numbers get low, and every time we hire one or two, a few more officers leave. I don’t know where it ends.”
McKinney said he doesn’t look at the exit interviews to see what reasons departing officers are giving, but he said the city human resources department lets him know if something “glaring” is said.
But the HPD chief said there is yet another reason it’s hard to retain officers – the job itself.
“This job is very taxing mentally,” McKinney said. “Just being in uniform and in a police cruiser, your stress level goes up because you never know what’s going to happen. You carry that.
“Then you go to the calls where infants aren’t breathing or there’s been a suicide, a tragic accident, a shooting … you pick that up. It’s like carrying a bucket. It starts to fill up and keeps filling up. It’s hard on a lot of people.”
“Becoming a police officer is something you’ve really thought about in your heart,” he said. “It’s almost a calling. Otherwise, the mindset is ‘Why would I get involved in this?’ It’s very dangerous; it’s very stressful, and the pay’s not really good, either. It’s tough.”
The chief said that command staff tries to pour into the ranks in various ways.
“We try to support them every way we can – they have the best equipment; our cars are in good shape. We just bought new firearms with state-of-the-art optics … Then just every day, we try to recognize the good our officers do. It’s not something we do enough of though,” McKinney said. “We have awards banquets. And we try to push down that if officers are doing the right thing, I’ll support you 100%. I will back you 100%.”
McKinney said the department has ramped up recruiting, but even then, the Department of Criminal Justice Training in Richmond is running six to seven months behind. So newly hired officers, if they aren’t “lateral” hires from other departments, must wait to attend.
“We are moving toward that direction (of adding officers), but it’s very slow,” he said. “We are in a predicament right now.”
A DIFFERENT OPINION
Henderson native Jonas Schweikhard, 31, spent more than nine years as a Henderson police officer.
Dec. 19, 2023, was his last day.
“To be a police officer in my hometown was a dream,” he said. “I liked being able to help in any way I could; to make a good impact not only on the community, but specifically the kids in the community and to show a different light of what being part of law enforcement is. “
Despite his love for being a police officer, Schweikhard—a husband and father of two—said he couldn’t continue to serve, at least not for the Henderson department.
Leaving the agency, he said, boils down to “my distrust of the in-house administration.”
Schweikhard said he spoke at length about his reservations during his exit interview.
While he may not want to work for them, Schweikhard commended the command staff for the strides they’ve made to recruit and retain officers. However, he said, more needs to be done.
“They have pushed and gotten us raises, and allowed us to have beards to help morale,” he said. “But you can throw money and toys and whatever else at people, but until you feel like there’s a buy in from the very top to the very bottom, officers aren’t going to stay.
“For me personally, and other officers have told me this as well, I don’t feel as though the current administration truly cares about us. They have gotten us things (like new equipment, and across the board raises). But it doesn’t feel that they are buying into us as individuals or as a team.”
In addition, he said, “they didn’t take into account anyone else’s ideas, and if you spoke out against their ideas, then you were on their radar. You have the concern of retaliation from them” in the form of removing people from their positions or “them watching for reasons to discipline officers.”
When questioned about alleged retaliation from command staff, Chief McKinney denied the accusation saying it was “absolutely not true!” He also said exaggerated scrutiny of officers isn’t occurring but said employees must be held accountable when necessary.
Whereas Schweikhard disagrees with McKinney regarding the heart of HPD’s retention issues, he concurs with the chief on several points.
First, he agrees that having fewer patrol officers increases stress levels.
“There were days we worked one supervisor and four patrolmen, but there were days we worked one supervisor and three patrolmen … and it’s non-stop,” he said. “The administration’s big push right now is activity numbers” such as traffic stops and serving warrants, he said. “They want increased activity numbers.”
Schweikhard said current first-line supervisors such as sergeants and lieutenants “are great.”
“I can speak for my squad. They are fantastic. They would take calls (when things got busy). Also, if they knew we were overwhelmed by reports, they’d take our calls for us to help us get caught up. Honestly, what has kept me there for so long was them, and the officers I work with.”
Second, Schweikhard agrees with McKinney that the 401K type of retirement fund implemented by the legislature around 2014 isn’t conducive to retaining employees. Therefore, people are leaving the department or law enforcement altogether—often for more money—and rolling over their 401Ks when they go to other professions, both Schweikhard and the chief said.
“I think money plays a role, especially if you were hired after 2014,” Schweikhard said. “Then you’re on a hybrid retirement 401K. So, if you’re on that, money is a big part. But there have been people who leave for less money just because they weren’t happy. I’m one of them. I left for about half of what I was making as a police officer.”
Finally, he said he agrees that the trauma experienced by men and women in uniform can, over time, take an adverse toll.
“We see things that most normal people don’t see ever in their lives, and we see it multiple times,” he said.
The former HPD officer said the decision to leave the agency was incredibly difficult.
“Me leaving is going to put a bigger strain on the patrol officers, and I know that,” Schweikhard said. “That’s why I stuck around for so long. I didn’t want to leave them high and dry, but it came to a point where it was time for me to go. I also thought that maybe when I left, I could make a difference for them by being honest about why I left—what I saw and my opinions, and hopefully, that would make a difference.
“I love the job. It was hard. But overall, it’s a very rewarding career. I loved being a police officer. “
CITY HALL RESPONDS
Henderson Mayor Brad Staton said while the city police department has been struggling with officer retention for several years, he believes the situation is getting better.
“It’s improving, but the numbers are still low,” he said.
To learn more from departing officers, Staton said he and other city officials have been looking at exit interviews.
“Some left to go back to their hometowns. We had two leave to take career opportunities within the school system. We had one who wasn’t happy with his work environment, so I paid a lot of attention to that exit interview,” he said.
Staton said the city commission has increased pay scales for beginning officers from roughly $36,000 to $51,000 annually, including state incentives, and implemented other measures to keep officers.
“But to be perfectly honest, I think there comes a time where we have to take a look at what we’re doing, and why we can’t retain the employees,” Staton said. “We keep doing things from the monetary side, and people get a sentiment that money is the answer to everything. But it’s not always the answer.”
Staton said city officials are defining clearer steps to find out why so many officers leave HPD.
“The city manager and I have had discussions about how we can effectively go and get job overviews or job opinions from people on the force who can tell us more about how they feel about their job,” Staton said. “How they feel about their leadership, how they feel about the direction of the department, what things are working well and what could use adjustment or improvement.”
The mayor said these discussions have been occurring since the fall of last year.
“We want to take those results and work with the leadership within our police department and all the leadership of hazardous employment we have in the city, so we can make sure we are addressing environmental/cultural concerns and make sure these departments are places where people want to come to work,” Staton said.
“I think in the next quarter, we’re going to see some definitive action in that direction after we sit down with the police chief, and the deputy police chief, to talk about the direction of the department and how we can make it a better place to work.”
McKinney said he would welcome any input from city officials regarding ways to temper the flow of departing employees.
Staton said officials are also considering a specialized human resources position.
“We are taking a look at adding a hazardous duty human resource specialist who will deal with the police department, and deal specifically with recruitment, retention and environment so we can do a deeper dive into what are the things – beyond monetary benefits – that we can do to make the police department environment more friendly to employees,” he said.
“We are still fleshing it out,” Staton said, so it’s uncertain if the specialized position would be part of HPD staffing or fall under the city’s human resource department.
The mayor said the hazardous duty human resource specialist would be a liaison for all hazardous duty departments, including the Henderson Fire Department and the Henderson County 911 dispatch.
“Hazardous duty employees deal with things that others don’t, such as trauma,” said the mayor. “That’s a big concern of mine. When people are placed in traumatic events or experiences, we want to make sure they have the resources needed to help them overcome what they’ve been exposed to in the healthiest way possible so they can remain a productive member of whatever department they’re in.”
“We want to make some improvements because we want to get our numbers back up to full complement. And when we look at our hazardous duty agencies, the police department has been the most challenging one to get to full staff and keep it there,” he said.
Having a lower-than-ideal number of police officers, Staton said, is a source of anxiety.
“One of the core responsibilities we have to our taxpayers is to make sure the safety of our city isn’t in jeopardy,” he said. “That’s why we’ve been very open to all the things the police department has requested. I can’t recall a specific time where we as a city commission have said no.”
The mayor said now, though, that the police department needs to be looked at “in a systematic way instead of just throwing money and benefits at the job. We need to take a higher-level look at what the day-to-day job of a police officer looks like, and how we can make that better.”
Staton said despite the current challenges, he’s proud of the men and women at the Henderson Police Department, and the work they do.
“I continue to believe that our police department is a good department,” he said. “But we’ve got to make some improvements. We’ve got to go beyond giving them extra money and benefits. We’ve got to do a deeper dive. We have to learn why we are losing employees and what we can do to address it.”
And Staton complimented the department’s leadership.
“I continue to believe our current leadership is capable of running an efficient and effective department,” he said. “At the same time, I believe that great leaders seek out this type of objective and untainted feedback to explore for commonalities and make adjustments to benefit their departments or organizations.”