‘We are exhausted:’ Local police departments understaffed could put your safety in jeopardy

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — When every second counts, you rely on the police to be there. However, staffing shortages and burnout at agencies could put that help in jeopardy.


Law enforcement agencies are trying to recruit with thousands of dollars worth of sign-on bonuses, but that money might not fix the whole problem.

Brandy Durham saw this issue firsthand when she called the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office for help last year. A stranger tried to break into her southside apartment in the middle of the night while she was home alone with her 9-year-old son.

“A million things went through my mind. I started thinking, ‘Is my back gate locked? Are the windows locked?’” Durham said.

She immediately called 911, but help did not respond quickly. An officer arrived 15 minutes after the stranger attempting to break in had already left.

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Action News Jax’s Robert Grant asked her what her expectation was when calling 911.

“At four in the morning? A little bit more urgency with someone in the middle of the night trying to break into a home with a single mother and child,” she answered.

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“The quality of the service might diminish,” said Mike Tucker, chief of staff for the Florida Fraternal Order of Police.

He added that the relationship between law enforcement and the community has hit an all-time low since the murder of George Floyd by police. It’s the exact reason why he retired after 2 decades on the job.

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He’s not alone. Two-thirds of agencies across the country have seen an increase in retirements and resignations, according to the Police Executive Research Forum. Consequently, there are less experienced officers on the streets.

The research described vicious circles of too few cops leading to mandatory overtime, which leads to burnout, which leads to even fewer cops. Agencies are also struggling to fill positions.

“We have definitely seen a trend where less and less folks are applying,” Tucker said. “It absolutely impacts public safety.”

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FOP found vacancy rates climbed from what used to be around 5% to 20%.

Action News Jax Investigates asked each of our local departments how many positions they’re budgeted for and how many are open.

About half have a vacancy rate of around 5%, except Neptune Beach and Jacksonville Beach Police Departments. Both have about 9% vacancy rates. The Clay County Sheriff’s Office said it has close to an 11% vacancy.

There also may not be enough open positions to begin with. According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the average ratio statewide is 1.6 officers per 1,000 people. Using the latest census data, we found the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office needs 76 more deputies to meet the average. St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office is short 112 deputies, and Clay County Sheriff’s Office needs 45.

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One way agencies try to retain and hire more officers is by paying them more. Orange Park Police Department recently did just that after agreeing to an 18% pay raise to $50,182, matching the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, which also recently increased pay.

Tucker said more money is just a short-term solution that won’t fix the whole problem. 

“People are in need and wanting officers within minutes, but meanwhile, they’re maybe waiting hours for officers,” he explained.

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He said the answer is fixing the root problem between the community and police officers.

“There’s a lot of pain in these communities and a lot of pain in these officers, and we have to be empathetic instead of blaming each other,” Tucker said.

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