Lebanon police $30,000 signing bonus raises eyebrows 

By JOHN LIPPMAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 10-29-2023 1:40 AM

LEBANON — In a sign of the challenge police departments face in filling their ranks, the city’s police department has increased its signing bonus to $30,000 for newly hired officers — three times the amount New Hampshire State Police is offering for new troopers and twice as much as neighboring Hanover.

“It’s no secret law enforcement recruitment and retention is in a crisis mode right now throughout this country, no matter whether you are a five-man department or 5,000,” Lebanon Police Chief Phil Roberts said this past week in explaining the decision to increase the department’s signing bonus by $10,000 from $20,000.

“Everybody is in the same boat and short huge numbers where they need to be,” he said.

The $30,000 offer extends only to full-time certified law enforcement officers — meaning those candidates who have graduated from a police academy — who are ready to work following field training, Roberts said.

The 35-sworn officer department currently has four vacancies.

Roberts contended the city will save money over time because it will not have to pay the salary of a fresh recruit during the 16-week course at the state police academy.

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And 16 weeks is the minimum. Because there are specific windows when recruits can enter the academy, it can be several months before a new hire is qualified to patrol independently, Roberts said, but the department is on the hook for full salary and benefits during this period.

“To bring in a non-certified candidate, get them through the academy, get them through training, costs $30,000 and upwards of $50,000,” Roberts said. “On face value it seems like, wow, $30,000. But we’re actually saving money by hiring a certified candidate. We’re not throwing money around.”

The bonus is paid in full up front, but if the officer leaves before the 36-month contract ends, the bonus has to be repaid, Roberts said.

The signing bonus for non-certified candidates has been doubled to $5,000, up from $2,500 last year.

The union-negotiated annual salary for a patrol officer is currently ranges from $59,700 to about $78,900.

Roberts attributes the challenge in police hiring to pervasive negative perceptions of law enforcement, citing events such as the 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Multiple officers were found guilty in jury trials in connection with Floyd’s death.

“The political climate of the past two to three years affects the morale, affects peoples’ opinions of police work, and it’s just not that appealing of a job for the majority of people currently in this country,” he said.

Lebanon’s signing bonus raised eyebrows among some other Upper Valley police departments, ranging from astonishment at the amount for a police agency in the region to justifiable.

In Hanover, Police Chief Charlie Dennis said the Lebanon bonus is not unreasonable given the three years the newly hired officer is obligated to stay with the department.

“That’s a pretty big jump,” Dennis said, but also said it was “perfectly justifiable” given the savings from hiring certified officers.

Hanover is offering a $15,000 bonus for officers certified by the New Hampshire Police Standards & Training Council — as the state’s police academy is called — and $10,000 for officers certified by an out-of-state academy, paid out over the course of the three-year contract.

There are some signs that difficulty in finding candidates for police work may be easing.

Hanover’s department — with 21 sworn officers — currently has two open positions to fill, a situation Dennis termed “not too bad.” A year ago, the department had four open positions.

The town’s officers start at $52,000 annually; it bumps up to $53,000 after completing the academy and rises to more than $56,000 after six months.

The 16-week academy course is typically followed by 12 weeks of department field training — “getting to know the community” — before an officer is ready to patrol independently, Dennis said.

Hartford offers a $10,000 signing bonus for certified officers and $5,000 for non-certified.

Hartford’s police department, budgeted for 23 positions, currently has five open positions, said Hartford Police Chief Greg Sheldon.

Sheldon’s department has lost two officers and hired two officers since he moved from Rutland to take over Hartford’s police department in February.

He is more upbeat than Roberts about the attractiveness of law enforcement as a profession, but challenges remain.

“We don’t have a recruitment problem. We have a retention problem,” he said.

Hartford recently hired a fresh recruit who will start at the Vermont Police Academy in February; it won’t be until the second half of 2024 that he will be able to patrol on his own after he completes department field training.

Sheldon said the workplace culture inside a police department can be a more powerful recruitment tool than financial incentive.

“The last two hires we’ve done — neither of them said they came here because of the bonus,” Sheldon said.

Newport Police Chief Alex Lee said he is skeptical about the value of hiring bonuses.

His department was able to hire three new officers this month, bringing the department to 13 full-time sworn officers for the first time in three years.

“To be honest, this was a stroke of good luck as opposed to a carefully crafted recruiting strategy,” Lee said.

All three new hires are from the local area. One, a former Marine, has a family member on the force; another was in the private sector and wanted to move to the public sector; and a third, a former military police officer who worked as a medical technician, wanted to return to law enforcement. They will spend a couple of months doing orientation with the department before going to the police academy in January.

In the first weeks Lee and other department officers have been taking the new hires around Newport, pointing out the landmarks, roads, introducing them to area businesses like Sturm, Ruger & Co. and social service organizations such as Turning Points Network, a nonprofit supporting survivors of domestic and sexual violence, with whom the Newport Police Department works closely, Lee detailed when he brought all three into the studio for an interview on Newport radio station WCNL-AM.

Once certified, the new recruits will also have three months of field training.

“They will not be out on their own filling spots on our patrol schedule until next summer,” Lee said.

Lee said “there have been discussions” about whether Newport should offer a hiring bonus to recruits, although he noted that is ultimately a decision that rests with the town manager and Selectboard.

“There are arguments on both sides when you’re looking short-term needs versus long-term policy,” Lee said. “There is no question that if you offer a large signing bonus, you’re going to attract more applicants.”

But in the long term, Lee said, “the whole system of bonuses I think you’ll find promotes a culture of moving around, not staying in one department.”

Lee said longevity can be key to community policing.

“Our approach has been, for better or worse, rather than take a mercenary approach with higher salaries and bonuses, is to create an atmosphere within the PD where people want to be here and stay.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.