North Texas sheriff’s departments have experienced staffing shortages at their respective detention centers.

These shortages, which have been seen in Collin, Dallas, Denton and Tarrant counties, have been, in part, the result of a growing job market with more competitive salaries, according to data from the Workforce Solutions for North Central Texas.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do but we’re going to get through it,” Denton County Sheriff Tracy Murphree said during a Lewisville Chamber of Commerce meeting in the fall. There he described the “dire” staffing levels the department experienced as a way to help recruit.

Collin County Sheriff Jim Skinner said economic factors contribute to public safety staffing such as the future of interest rates, inflation, job growth and even the possible ripple effects of layoffs in Silicon Valley.

Skinner also serves as the chair of the Government Affairs Committee for the National Sheriffs’ Association

The job market is also on the rise, according to the Workforce Solutions for North Central Texas data. From 2016 to 2021, jobs increased by 22.4% in Collin County from 420,897 to 515,163. This change outpaced the national growth rate of 1.9% by 20.5%.

In Dallas County, jobs increased by 5.1% during that same time. In Denton County, jobs increased by 21.6%. And in Tarrant County, jobs increased by 7.7%.

To combat the shortage, officials have turned to recruiting and financial incentives.

Staffing shortages

These law enforcement staffing challenges are not limited to North Texas but have been seen state-wide, Denton County Judge Andy Eads said.

“Denton county is not alone in our challenges here,” he said. “It’s a statewide and national trend.”

Denton’s Sheriff Department has seen a decrease in applications for law enforcement and is now experiencing a 35% staffing level at its jail. Having a fully functioning jail is essential to public safety and the judicial system, Eads said.

“You can’t incarcerate people without having detention officers,” he said.

These officers are “critical” to the public safety infrastructure, he said.

The shortage has caused a burden on the jail staff, Eads said, as employees now have to take on more shifts to appropriately man the detention center.

Skinner, from Collin County, reiterated Eads point. Staffing presents serious challenges and it is an issue that he manages on a daily basis, Skinner said in an email.

“Like other agencies in law enforcement, sheriffs across the state and across the nation are facing serious staffing challenges,” he said. “Because many sheriffs provide not only law-enforcement services but also supervise the county jail, a sheriff’s challenges extend to the corrections field as well.”

Currently, the Collin County Sheriff’s Office has just under 10% openings in line-level detention officers and just under 3% openings in line-level deputy sheriffs, Skinner said.

“Unfortunately, in many Sheriffs Offices across the country, the vacancy rate exceeds 35%,” he said. “By any measure this is a crisis.”

Challenges facing a short staff

In December, Dallas County had 120 vacancies in detention areas out of 1,481, Dallas County Sheriff Marian Brown said.

That staffing level has created challenges, she said.

The issue is the jail is regulated by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, which comes with a required level of staffing per inmate, Brown said. If the staff does not reach that level, current employees must work overtime to meet that state requirement.

“We have to get creative,” she said.

Tarrant County has experienced its own set of challenges because of staffing shortages.

In August, Tarrant County sent 432 inmates from its county jail to a private jail near Lubbock because of a staffing shortage and planned maintenance this year, according to county commissioner agendas.

Tarrant County Commissioners approved an $18 million contract with Giles W. Dalby Correctional Facility for the inmate transfer.

Staffing incentives

The local sheriff’s departments have turned to recruiting, incentive pay and other perks to help fill in the staffing holes.

“I regularly speak with other sheriffs and their senior supervisors about recruiting, retention and morale in my role as the chair of the Government Affairs Committee for the National Sheriffs’ Association,” Collin County’s Skinner said. “Many counties use various incentives, including compensation, recruiting or retention pay, employment and retirement benefits, and training and educational benefits, to improve their situations.”

Dallas County has been doing recruiting fairs to bring people to the job. Brown also regularly visits with commissioners about the issue, she said.

In Denton County, the department created temporary positions that were part-time as a way to attract people like retirees or people who don’t want or need a full-time job, Eads said.

The county commissioners also approved a pay raise during the fall for county employees, including those working in the jail. The starting salary increased two pay grades, which was about 15%, Eads said. County employees who also recruit people to work will receive $500 in incentive pay.

Despite staffing shortages, Skinner still wants people who are right for the job.

“These professions take commitment and resolve,” he said. “We want the right people. We plan, train and budget for them. We are very selective about who we select, given the enormous responsibility that they are given in keeping our citizens and communities safe.”