Since 2015, a total of 15 officers have come and gone from the Forsyth Police Department, and poor pay conditions are receiving much of the blame for many of those officers leaving for other departments.
“What these officers make, It’s pitiful that they go out and risk their lives, and they do every day, and get paid $13 an hour,” said Forsyth Police Chief Roger Ellis.
However, Ellis did not put all the blame on low pay.
“One is pay, two is take-home cars and three is a bigger sandbox to play in,” he said. “If you want to say the city of Forsyth is a sandbox, the county has a lot bigger sandbox. But mainly its the pay and the take-home cars.”
New officers joining the Forsyth Police Department currently receive a starting pay of $12 an hour. Once an officer completes his or her field training, they receive a dollar an hour raise, which can typically be completed in 12 weeks. Ellis said, in the future, he would like to see new officers making a minimum of $14 an hour to start.
Outside of Ellis and Forsyth School Resource Officer Steve Huggins, Ellis said none of his other five officers have been with the department for more than a year; with the most recent officer being hired by Forsyth Aldermen on July 9.
Forsyth Patrol Sgt. Robert Sanderson – who joined the department in January, but has worked in law enforcement in Taney County for around a decade – said he wants to see the community of Forsyth being protected by officers who not only know the area, but are experienced with dealing with its residents.
“I’m very familiar with the good people of this county,” Sanderson said. “So I’d like to see every officer on a first-name basis with people they deal with on a regular basis. I want to see guys who know high crime areas in their jurisdiction and can effectively police those areas,” said Sanderson. “You just don’t have that when you’re constantly a revolving door. You have a new face every time you turn around. It’s very disheartening when you respond to these incidents and people are like, ‘Who’s the new guy?’ every time you go out.”
When it comes to getting raises for his officers, Ellis said he’s always run up against the same two issues since becoming chief.
“The first one is they have the mindset – they being the board (of aldermen) – that we know we’re a training facility for all the other departments, so no big deal,” said Ellis. “Their second mindset is … if one person gets a dollar an hour raise, then the whole city gets a dollar an hour raise.
“I’ve tried to bring these officers up to a pay that’s decent with at least the sheriff’s office here. I’ve lost a lot of officers to the sheriff’s office. If I paid equal to that, I wouldn’t lose them. We’d be keeping them. We’d have experienced officers. I would love to see them come to that mindset where we can give the officers a raise and not give the rest of the employees that same raise.”
For the last three years, the city has approved raises of 2.5 percent each year for all of its employees in order to stay ahead of the consumer price index, according to Forsyth Finance Officer Angela Leist.
“They consider the raise across the board for all city departments and decide what that’s going to be, and that’s what it is. They do that once a year at budget time,” said Leist. “We don’t have a merit system or a standard salary structure like other cities do. So this annual raise is how they compensate.
Leist explained that an officer making $13 an hour, would receive a 33 cent increase with the 2.5 percent city-wide raise.
“We tend to be the training ground. Most of our officers are entry level, with little experience. As they gain their experience, they tend to move on to large departments that pay a little better,” said Leist. “It seems to be this way in the industry, in general. Police officers seem to be a very mobile bunch.”
Leist said that at the July 15 Board of Aldermen meeting, aldermen gave her the authority to put the 2.5 percent raise into the 2020 budget. If the 2020 budget is approved, it would go into effect on Sept. 1.
Forsyth Ward I Alderman Jack Baker said the aldermen don’t like the constant turnover, but they’re doing the best they can.
“We cannot compete salary-wise with the Taney County Sheriff, Branson Police, Hollister Police, with the Ozark and Nixa Police. We just can’t compete with them. We cannot afford to give a $3 or $4 an hour increase to a section of employees,” said Baker. “I’m losing policemen a couple, three a year and that’s just the way it’s got to be.”
While aldermen are not OK with the city being a officer training facility for other bigger departments, Baker said they don’t blame those who choose to move on.
“We can’t give a $3 an hour raise to six cops on our budget. We don’t like it,” Baker said. “We’d like to have policemen stick around for 15 years. But for the individual policeman, if he can get three bucks an hour more at Taney County or Branson, it’s a smart family move, and I can’t condemn them for that.”
Baker said, in order to give raises, the city needs to bring in more income, which is something they have been working to do.
“The city had contacted several businesses to see if they would be interested in locating in Forsyth,” Baker said. “I’ve been on the council for several years, and we have done that every year. We’d like to have more business. Our income comes from sales tax dollars. We’d like to have more businesses in town, but that’s almost up to the individual with the business.”
Sanderson shared that many of the Forsyth officers have entertained other job offers, but have chosen to stick with Forsyth.
“It’s disheartening to come to work every day and know you could go somewhere else, but your heart’s here. You want to protect this city. You want to serve this community,” said Sanderson. “Everybody that gets into this line of work knows that it’s not going to be something that you get rich doing. But just to know that you’re appreciated and, in fact, have a little incentive to come to work every day.”
Sanderson said in order to make ends meet, some of the officers work a second full-time job, including himself.
“I can work two jobs. I don’t mind,” he said. “But I’m not dedicating my entire abilities to this community alone, and I want to. These guys all want to. This is a hardworking group of dudes.”
For the first time in several months, the Forsyth Police Department has a full staff of seven officers, which includes the chief. Because he’s salary and not hourly, Ellis said when he’s without a full staff he’s worked 12 hour shifts, seven days a week to make sure someone is always on patrol. Once the newly hired officer has completed field training, Ellis said he’ll be able to focus more on being the chief and not a patrol officer.