Sheriff hopes pay increase will help Douglas County compete with KC-area law enforcement agencies

photo by: Douglas County Sheriff's Office

Douglas County Sheriff Jay Armbrister

Earlier this month, Douglas County Sheriff Jay Armbrister got an all-too-familiar piece of bad news: Another one of his employees was leaving for a law enforcement job in Johnson County, where the tax bases and the wages are much bigger.

Since he took office in 2021, Armbrister has seen stiff competition on deputy and corrections officer pay from the Kansas City area — especially from the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office. Sometimes, he said, other departments actively try to poach his employees. And the whole situation is exacerbating his office’s “near-crisis staffing level” — where employees sometimes have to work 16-hour shifts to pick up the slack.

“The greater Kansas City area is locked into an arms race with each other, and we can’t compete with that,” Armbrister told the Journal-World last week. “We’re not Johnson County; we don’t have that tax base.”

But Douglas County’s 2024 budget proposal, which county commissioners will be finalizing next month, would take a big step toward closing the gap. It includes a $737,000 package for raises at the sheriff’s office, most of which would be earmarked for entry-level corrections officer and deputy positions.

Armbrister submitted four proposals for raises to commissioners in early July, and the one in the budget proposal now falls roughly in the middle of the pack — the smallest option he proposed was $527,000, and the largest was $1.24 million. If it’s ultimately approved, Douglas County’s wages still won’t match Johnson County’s, but Armbrister said he hopes they’ll be close enough that his office can compete.

“Our goal is to just keep them in sight,” he said.

At the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, Armbrister said, pay for sheriff’s deputies starts at $28.50 per hour. But in Douglas County, it starts at just $23.98 per hour, Armbrister said, and corrections officers start even lower, at $20.19 per hour.

The new pay package, if ultimately approved, would bump the starting pay for both corrections officers and deputies to $25.96 an hour.

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It’s critical that the pay increase goes through, Armbrister said, because Douglas County’s rivals haven’t stepped off the gas.

Johnson County’s $28.50 starting rate came about after that county passed its 2023 budget, which according to a report by Fox4 Kansas City increased deputy pay by roughly 14%. After the hike, Fox4 KC said in December, the sheriff’s office saw a 377% increase in the number of applicants for deputy positions.

That included lots of people with law enforcement experience — many of them from other departments in the KC area.

“The problem with our neighbors to the east is that they are drawing from all of us,” Armbrister said. “It’s a universal northeast Kansas law enforcement issue, that this group of agencies is out to get our employees. And they can pay them.”

Armbrister said it’s not just the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, but also competition from police departments like Lenexa, Overland Park and Olathe. And he said rival agencies have looked to actively recruit personnel from his office before.

“They take every opportunity they can to recruit and hire our employees,” he said.

One bright spot is that Douglas County’s pay isn’t dwarfed by all of the counties that surround it. For instance, Armbrister said the sheriff’s office in Shawnee County, home to Topeka, has a pay schedule roughly comparable to Douglas County’s.

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The competition from other agencies is just one factor playing into the county’s staffing problem, Armbrister said, and it will take more than just increasing wages to fix it.

Currently, Armbrister said, the department is down about eight patrol positions, and he needs to dramatically increase jail staffing as well. Right now, he said there’s been an uptick in overtime hours to cover the gaps, which he said isn’t sustainable, because some employees are working shifts that can stretch from 12 to 16 hours.

“We’re going to go over budget on overtime, which is fine, because we’re so under budget on staffing,” Armbrister said. “But you’re burning your people down at a faster rate, because they’re the ones that have to work overtime.”

The staffing crisis, Armbrister said, isn’t just from people leaving for other departments; it’s also from retirements and other kinds of attrition. But once he’s able to raise the department’s pay, Armbrister hopes he can make Douglas County more competitive and get more people to stick around by emphasizing the “intangibles” offered in the community.

“Lawrence and Douglas County is a unique community, especially when you stack it against the rest of the state, or even the Midwest,” he said, adding that “politically, socially, economically, we’re a super-cool county and different from our neighbors.”

As part of its outreach efforts, Armbrister said his office is emphasizing that the world of law enforcement looks different now than it used to. “Up until two years ago you couldn’t even have facial hair,” he said, and that’s far from the most important way that law enforcement is a “changed world.”

Another much bigger way is the diversity of the workforce.

Armbrister said the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office already ranks among the top in the nation when it comes to employment of women, “especially females in position of rank.”

“The national average is (around) 13%, and we’re over 30%,” he said.

But he also wants to make sure more people from the LGBTQ community are represented, as well as racial and ethnic groups who might normally feel deterred as a result of the “traditional dark history of law enforcement.”

“It’s very difficult to break down a lot of those stigmas,” he said. “You’re talking about generations of trauma and history that we’re trying to undo. And I get it; it’s baby steps for sure.”

Armbrister also said he’s interested in what the department can do to better meet the needs of younger workers. He hopes that all of this can not only resolve the staffing woes, but also create a department that better reflects and serves Douglas County’s people.

“We’ve just come so far with who it is we want to work here,” Armbrister said. “We welcome everybody and want our folks to represent our community.”


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