Keeping officers is a Nantucket challenge too
The challenges of keeping police departments staffed and not losing officers to the mainland are shared by Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket.
"That is one of the ongoing issues with us - we've come to the realization we're just sort of a farm team," confirmed Nantucket Deputy Police Chief Charles Gibson in a phone call last week. "We're in the middle of trying to hire four or five officers right now - we go in phases. We send a number to the academy, knowing we're going to lose a couple every year or two. That's just the way it's going to be."
Nantucket police officers sign a three-year-employment contract, Deputy Chief Gibson said, which includes a clause requiring them to pay back what the town has invested in them if they leave before their contracts are up. "We've been to court a few times and won," he said. "We figure we spend at least $20,000 per new hire by the time we can get them on the street. We also pay for their housing when they're at the academy."
Like Martha's Vineyard, housing is a challenge for young police officers on Nantucket. "The biggest reason they leave is that they can't establish roots in the community," the deputy chief said. "They can't afford to live here, to have a home here - it's the economy that is the driving factor."
With rents averaging $2,000 a month, he added, "They look at that, and it's like gee, that's a mortgage payment for a small house in my hometown. A lot of them say, if only there was a bridge here. They love working here and would love to stay, if only they could afford to live here."
For married couples, jobs become an issue as well. "It's hard to keep two people employed on Nantucket, because professional opportunities are more limited," Mr. Gibson said.
A few police department personnel own houses on the Cape and share a rental place on Nantucket, flying off and on Martha's Vineyard when they can. "Commuting is not really an option, since we've got a two and a half hour boat ride to the mainland, and in the off-season, only three boats a day," Deputy Chief Gibson said with a laugh.
Nantucket's police department includes 40 officers and several specialty offices. "At least in a bigger agency, we can give more opportunities for advancement and offer more mobility into other positions within the department," said Mr. Gibson.
Despite those opportunities, the police department continues to lose officers, however. "When it comes to police officers, they're at their best after they've been on the job for five to seven years - at that point, the newness and rookiness is out of their systems, they know what's going on, they can handle the calls, they know the community, and they want to be a part of it - and that's when we're losing them," said the deputy chief, who has been with the department for 27 years.
The loss of so many experienced officers has necessitated adding sergeants to almost every shift. "We find we need someone with a few more years' experience instead of having an entire shift of officers who have two to three years of experience," Mr. Gibson explained.
Like Tisbury's police department, Deputy Chief Gibson said Nantucket's is aging. "The future we seeing develop here is that many of the people in the department who were able to buy houses in the mid to late 90s are nearing retirement," he noted. "As the core supervisory people who all own houses get closer to retirement and many of them start to leave, that means no one with a stake in the community will be left to be supervisors."
On Nantucket, the community likes having local police officers that know them, Deputy Chief Gibson said, which oftentimes improves the quality of interaction. "If you have an officer with a few year's experience and one with ten years, they'll both show up at the call, but how they'll deal with your problem is a matter of experience - that's going to be a challenge," Mr. Gibson said. "All of that experience is going to go away - all the locals will be retiring."
One advantage on Martha's Vineyard is the presence of the State Police and the mutual aid offered by police departments in neighboring towns, Deputy Chief Gibson noted. "In our position, we have no help from anyone - we need experienced people who can handle things themselves."