With the swearing in of a new officer on Monday, the Wrightsville Beach Police Department goes into the Independence Day holiday weekend fully staffed, the department’s chief said this week, following several years with some vacancies.
In adding Officer Tonya Baker to the force, the department is getting a 15-year veteran of the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office who will serve as the town’s designated beach officer, while also adding in investigations. With her hire, the Wrightsville Beach Police Department is fully staffed with 24 officers.
Wrightsville Beach Police Chief Dan House said an increase in officer pay, along with other recruiting and retention tools, should help make it easier to keep officer staffing at sufficient levels. In approving the 2019-2020 budget, which took effect on July 1, the town’s board of aldermen raised police officer base pay.
“It raised all the salaries. It’s still not as much as other departments, but it’s made our pay more competitive,” House said.
In prior years, House has urged the board to raise pay and create other retention tools, which he said were needed to keep other departments from poaching officers from the force. The issue of officer retention came to a head in August 2015 when the department saw seven resignations in a two-month span, with nearly a quarter of the force’s positions vacant.
The newly passed budget also provides another incentive for officer recruitment, as officers who can be certified by the state’s Criminal Justice Education & Training Standards Commission are also eligible for a raise.
Beyond pay, the department has sought other means to boost interest among potential recruits. One is a video shot by local videographer Ned Leary, that pieces together action-packed shots of officers on the beach, patrolling by boat and speeding down Waynick Boulevard with flashing lights.
House said that when the video was shown during a recent career fair at Cape Fear Community College, there was a noticeable increase in application.
Increased staffing may also help contribute to a recent rise in criminal statistics from the department. The most recent quarterly crime report released in May showed an increase of 36 percent in “Group A” offenses from January to March 2019 over the previous year, while “Group B” offenses were also up 19 percent.
However, the increase was due mainly to officers making drug-related arrests during traffic stops, as opposed to an increase in criminal activity. Wrightsville Beach police made 57 arrests for narcotics violations between January and March 2019, as compared with 21 over the same period in 2018. Drug equipment arrests were also up in the first quarter of 2019, with 39 arrests, compared to 9 in 2018. Additionally, DWIs were up in 2019, with 48 arrests in the first quarter, compared with 37 the prior year. By contrast, assaults and burglaries were down in 2019, compared to 2018.