Lack of officers hampering Wichita police department’s morale-building and community policing efforts

By: Jacob Unruh | Wichita Journalism Collaborative

Wichita’s police force is about 66 officers short of its authorized strength of 468 officers, according to Police Chief Joe Sullivan.

The police department faces a “retention crisis,” some analysts have said, which has complicated the department’s relationship with the community and ability to mend an internal culture criticized in a consultant’s report earlier this year.

Workforce shortages put officers in the position, Sullivan said, of constantly answering emergency calls, which limits more positive interactions with the public and adversely affects the officers’ own mental health.

“When you’re in a department that’s not fully staffed, and you’re responding to more emergencies than you normally would, and it’s constant one after another with no break, and you’re being asked to work overtime to fill in for those vacant positions, you’re experiencing more trauma, and you’re beginning to experience exhaustion and eventually burnout,” he said. “So that’s something that we’re keenly aware of, and we are working as quickly as we can to put together an officer wellness program.”

Police departments around the country are facing similar staffing challenges. However, Wichita has been one of the most affected. A study published in March examined the trends of resignations and retirements in urban police departments from June 2020 to September 2022. It found that Wichita experienced a 7.5% increase in excess resignations during the two year timespan – resulting in 41 more resignations and 12 more retirements than would be expected of the department. Ian Adams, an author of the study and assistant professor in criminology and criminal justice at the University of South Carolina, calls that a “retention crisis.”

“Typically, police departments see about 7-8% turnover per year,” Adams said. “So when you’re adding 7.5%, or in raw terms a near doubling of what we would expect in terms of retention just in that post-June 2020 period that we study … this puts them in the upper range of what we’re seeing in other agencies.”

Adams said that numerous departments around the country are experiencing retirement waves stemming from the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which used federal money to build up police departments.

“We had about 100,000 officers come into the profession from 1996 to 2000,” Adams said. “That was great, had a lot of good benefits for police staffing and operations and service levels. But the downside to a big hiring wave is that eventually you get a big retirement wave … That cohort of officers that was hired in the late nineties have now begun to retire. We anticipate that wave of retirements will continue through at least the next eight years.”

While retirements explain some portion of the staffing shortfall, they do not explain why Wichita has seen a larger uptick in resignations compared with other departments. Michael Birzer, a professor of criminal justice at Wichita State University, argues that organizational culture is one of the most important factors in police officer retention. Historically, he said, police departments have been extremely bureaucratic with authoritarian, military-style leadership.

“What you’re seeing in progressive organizations with progressive chiefs, they’re beginning to recognize that with certain generations in our workplace now, the majority that have not had military experience find it very difficult to adjust to those paramilitary police environments,” Birzer said. “So they’re now trying to deviate their organizational cultures away from that. I think that’s a good thing.”

A report assessing the Wichita Police Department published last March by consulting service Jensen Hughes stated that “the current internal culture in the WPD is unhealthy, and at times toxic.” Department staff complained of unfair punishments, poor communication, lack of diversity and high call volume, among other concerns. A common thread among those interviewed for the report was that while they loved police work, they considered leaving Wichita for greener pastures due to the poor internal culture.

Sullivan, who became Wichita’s police chief last October, said that he is committed to implementing the recommendations of the Jensen Hughes report in a transparent fashion. He also said that he is working with Jason Hood, the new human resources director for Wichita, to revamp the disciplinary process.

“I want to make sure that we have a process that no one in the police department has any active part in, so that officers will know that we’re going to administer a process that is completely unbiased and fair,” Sullivan said.

Adams points out that not all of the problems regarding police retention and retirements can necessarily be solved. Another factor is lateral transfers across police departments. Adams says that rural and suburban agencies have offered “as much as $75,000” in hiring bonuses to lure urban police officers to their agencies.

“It makes total economic sense for agencies to do it because it takes $100,000 to $130,000 to train a brand new person to be a police officer,” Adams said. “That process takes about 18 months on average. So if it’s going to cost you $130,000 to get an unproven, newly trained officer, it will always make sense to pay less than that to get an already experienced and trained officer today rather than 18 months from now.”

Adams said he believes that eventually an equilibrium will be reached after the retirement wave, but that process might decrease police effectiveness at responding to calls.

“Suddenly lowering police staffing has a really negative impact on call response times,” Adams said.

Reporting from the Wichita Eagle in January revealed that the average response time from the Wichita Police Department has risen from 13 minutes and 21 seconds in 2012 to 25 minutes and 13 seconds in 2022.

Adams also said that departments have begun to cut back on the types of calls they take, ignoring small infractions and instead focusing on large emergency situations. He said that this could feel disconcerting for community members who didn’t realize that police couldn’t help them with their situation.

“If you have a shed broken into and a bunch of tools and a bike go missing and you’re in a community where the department has been forced to stop responding to that sort of call, that can feel really bad,” Adams said. “The community members can be left feeling very much in the lurch and with nowhere to turn to.”

Sullivan said that the main impact of the understaffing problem at the department is that his officers can’t have as many positive interactions with the city to better the community-police relationship.

“I would like to have officers with more time just to get out of their vehicles and engage with the community,” Sullivan said. “We just lack the ability to do that very often because my officers pretty much are running from one radio call to another the vast majority of the day … we have to first accomplish our most basic mission, which is to respond to emergencies in a timely fashion.”

John Eterno, director of criminal justice and legal studies at Molloy College in New York and former NYPD captain, said that in order for police to gain more trust from the public, they need to have more humanizing interactions with the community. The lack of staffing inhibits this goal.

“If you don’t have enough staff, you really become a reactive department instead of a proactive department,” he said. “That means you’re just running around answering 911 radio runs. When you do that, you can’t work with the communities, all you can do is the minimum job of answering emergency calls.”

To address the department’s “crisis of manpower,” Sullivan said he plans to recruit “aggressively” by offering more internships, increasing morale and focusing on hiring more women and people of color.

“It’s not something that’s going to solve itself overnight,” he said. “We’re going to climb that mountain one step at a time, but we’re going to keep stepping, and we’re going to keep moving forward, and we’ll get there.”

Jacob Unruh is a student at Wichita State University and was a reporting intern for the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, a coalition of 11 newsrooms and community groups, this past semester.