By John Schaffner

An audit of the Atlanta Police Department, completed in July, points to vacancies and attrition as hindering the department’s ability to reach its goal of 2,000 officers and says that “problems with the system used to track the locations of personnel could also limit the department’s ability to make the best use of staff.”

Although an additional 204 sworn officer positions have been authorized since 2003, the actual number of police officers has averaged 201 fewer than authorized, according to the audit of police staffing.

Buckhead’s Zone 2, which is one of the two largest police zones in the city geographically, had the fewest officers on the roster among the city’s six police zones when the audit was performed Aug. 1, 2007.

According to the audit, Zone 2 had 88 officers on the roster, of which only 64 were on their shifts. Vacations, comp time and training schedules accounted for the majority of the 24 officers who were not on their shifts that day.

In terms of patrol officers working Aug. 1, 2007, 48 were on the roster in Zone 2, of whom 31 were on their shifts and 17 were absent — again mainly because of vacations, comp time or training.

Zone 2 Commander Major James Sellers said that in the past one of the major criteria that has been used to establish the number of officers assigned to each zone has been “the number of calls for service. Zone 2 has had fewer calls for service. Those zones with the higher call volume get more officers.”

According to the audit report, with the exception of the unit at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, every zone had at least one beat uncovered for an eight-hour shift on the day of the audit. If a beat is uncovered, an officer on a nearby beat has to cover it, which the audit states can hurt response times.

Sellers said, “It doesn’t mean there is no one to answer the calls. It only means there is no officer assigned to that beat that day. That beat then is covered by the officer on the next beat over or by the umbrella car.

“We have to make the best decisions with the number of officers we have available,” Sellers added.

“I think the audit is a good thing,” said Sellers, because he feels it helps identify areas that need attention in the department.

According to the audit report, about half the vacant officer positions in the police department have been filled by recruits, some have been filled by civilian assistants, and the rest remain vacant.

“Part of the difficulty with filling vacancies has been increased employee turnover, primarily within the first year of service,” the report reads. “Personnel data inconsistencies also make it difficult to track vacancies and to know where officers are actually deployed.”

Sellers explained that it costs tens of thousands of dollars to train new recruits. However, if an officer leaves the force within one or two years of that training to go to work for another agency in the state, he said there is a state law that requires repayment of that cost by the new agency he joins.

The auditors urged the department to clarify the number and allocation of officers and to make information “more transparent” by budgeting separately for sworn officers, recruits and civilian assistants. They also recommended linking budgeted cost centers to actual activities and improving the use of workload analysis and personnel data to allocate officers and track their assignments.

Additionally, the auditors recommended that the department focus its retention efforts on personnel with five years or less of experience.

The audit reports on 70 departmental exit interviews, revealing that:

• Fifty percent of respondents left the department for lateral or lower-paying positions with another employer.

• Forty-two percent did not rate the department as a “good” or “excellent” place to work.

• Fifty percent noted that the “potential for career advancement” was a reason they began working with the department, but 19 percent indicated a lack of “career advancement opportunities” was a reason they resigned.

• Forty-one percent said “training and development opportunities” were reasons they joined the department, but 13 percent cited dissatisfaction with those as a reason they resigned.

• Thirty-three percent said benefits were a reason they joined the department, but 21 percent indicated dissatisfaction with benefits was a reason they resigned.

• Overall, however, 61 percent cited pay, 49 percent career advancement, 33 percent training opportunities, 46 percent benefits, 39 percent work hours, 33 percent job stability and 31 percent high-quality equipment as positive factors in their new jobs.

The audit also says impending retirements by department veterans will put pressure on management to fill vacancies. One-third of the officers on the force last December had 15 or more years of service, while 18 percent had 20 or more years.

“Past retirements have contributed to the difficulty of increasing staffing levels,” the report says. “Since 2003, the department has lost 224 officers due to retirement.”

This is the second of three reports related to police staffing. The first, released in April, assessed the reliability of the Police Department’s computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system. The CAD data will be used in the third report, which will compare on-duty staffing levels with calls for service and response times.

Police staffing was included in the city’s 2007 audit plan because the department has a high public profile and represents 30 percent of the city’s general fund budget. Personnel costs accounted for 93 percent of the department’s fiscal 2008 general fund budget.