Members of Mayor Justin Bibb’s administration on Friday defended their proposed cuts to vacant police positions. In a news conference, police leaders also conceded that it will be difficult to hire enough officers to fill even the new, lower budgeted headcount.
The city has been losing the years-long battle against police attrition, as more officers retire or resign than sign up for the force. By the end of last year, Cleveland employed 1,292 uniformed officers out of a budgeted headcount of 1,640.
This year’s budget proposal cuts 142 vacant positions from the 348 that were empty in December – leaving 206 police jobs to be filled in 2023.
“We’re well short of where we should be, and the 1,640 number was a really lofty number, that based on society now, based on the lack of being able to get enough qualified individuals to become law enforcement officers, it was a challenge,” Police Chief Wayne Drummond said. “And it’s still a challenge to reach the numbers that we currently are budgeted for, which is the 1,498.”
Drummond took questions from the media along with Safety Director Karrie Howard and Finance Director Ahmed Abonamah. The news conference was held virtually on Zoom. Bibb himself did not attend.
The Bibb administration balanced the 2023 budget estimate in part by eliminating 252 vacant positions across the General Fund. The mayor is not proposing to lay workers off. About 650 unfilled jobs remain in this budget, or 16% of the workforce covered by the General Fund.
On the call, city officials stressed that they had made other investments in law enforcement even as hiring sagged. For instance, a new contract with the police union increases pay for officers.
The 2023 budget slates almost $218 million for police, or about 30% of the General Fund. Last year’s budget gave police $223 million, although the division spent only $211 million.
The administration budgeted for 180 trainees this year. But cadet classes have shrunk recently. There are just 13 recruits in the current class, the chief said. Police departments aren’t the only agencies competing for 21-to-35-year-old recruits, Howard said.
“We’re also competing with the private sector, for private security firms,” Howard said. “We’re competing with the military.”
Ward 8 Council Member Michael Polensek, the chairman of Cleveland City Council’s safety committee, joined reporters on the call in questioning the administration. He urged city leaders to speed up plans to hire a marketing firm for police recruitment.
“At the end of the day, we’re losing officers every week, and we’ve got to figure out how we’re going to backfill those positions,” Polensek said. “We’re here trying to work with you and the administration to figure out how we can aggressively recruit officers to fill these positions.”
The councilman said that police are so short-staffed that they cannot fulfill their basic responsibilities – a statement that Howard disagreed with on the call.
After the news conference, Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association President Jeff Follmer told Signal Cleveland that eliminating police vacancies was “too easy of a fix to the budget.”
Cities across the country are struggling to hire officers. But Cleveland shouldn’t lower its budgeted goals because of a shortage of applicants, he said. After all, he said, the trend could turn around.
“We are short already, we’re at a minimum right now,” he said. “Any shorter, I think, will be shortchanging the citizens and will be burning police officers out.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that 257 vacant general fund positions would be cut. The correct number is 252.