Forest Hill police hired 3 officers since last January. In that same time, 10 have quit

Forest Hill police have had more officers quit than the department has been able to hire since January 2022, with 10 officers resigning or terminating their employment and only three new officers hired, according to data from the city acquired through an open records request.

City records indicate two people were terminated during this time period, but the Star-Telegram obtained letters of resignation those two people submitted to police supervisors.

Forest Hill Police Chief Eddie Burns said the department is taking steps to make it more a more attractive workplace and that retention bonuses, offering $10,000 to anybody willing to sign an 18-month commitment to stay with the department, have been “generally successful.” But the department is still facing challenges with recruitment and retention.

The Forest Hill Police Department has a total of 18 licensed police officers on its staff, including the police chief, according to records provided by the city. With a population of 13,701 in 2022 according to the U.S. Census Bureau, that means Forest Hill has about 1.3 officers for every 1,000 residents.

According to statistics from the FBI, the national average number of police officers per 1,000 residents in a city was 2.4 in 2019, the latest year data was available.

Of the eight law enforcement employees who resigned, six were police officers, one was a sergeant and one a detective. One police officer and one corporal were listed in city records as being terminated during that time, but resignation letters for those two officers were also provided in response to the Star-Telegram’s open records request.

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The three people hired were two police officers and one warrant officer. All three joined the department in 2022.

Resignation letters

In resignation letters obtained by the Star-Telegram, one sergeant and one officer noted they were resigning to accept positions with Burleson police. Another officer noted in their resignation letter that they had accepted a position with another agency, but did not say which one.

In his resignation letter, the sergeant said he accepted the position with Burleson police because the pay was competitive, the vests provided to officers would reduce the chance of injury while working, the department allows visible tattoos for officers and he would have more opportunity for career advancement.

He also said Burleson police would allow opportunities not offered by Forest Hill police for advanced training, and that he did not feel Forest Hill police adequately focused on officer safety or advanced training.

The officer who resigned, who also filled a role as a community relations officer that she said allowed her to build a stronger bond with the community, said she was leaving because she experienced “racial discrimination, harassment and a toxic work environment” while working for the Forest Hill Police Department.

Both the sergeant and officer offered their resignations on May 3, 2023.

The officer who left to accept a position at an unnamed agency said the new employer “better matches my family dynamics.”

Of the 10 resignation letters obtained by the Star-Telegram, five mention that the decision to quit was influenced by problems within the department. One officer said in his resignation that he had zero complaints about his time with the department and three others did not list any reasons behind the decision.

In the five that said they were leaving the department at least in part because of problems they had experienced, a toxic work environment, harassment and issues with people in leadership roles were common themes.

In one letter from September 2022, a sergeant who spent eight years with the department said he was leaving because “there are some that do not have the pure, positive intentions that this profession deserves and commands” and that some of those people were in positions to affect job statuses and influence the culture and morale of the department.

Some of the letters mention that efforts by Burns, hired in July 2021, to change the direction and culture of the department have been noticed, but say they had not been effective enough by the time the officers resigned.

Broken toilets and PD struggles

The department has faced negative publicity in recent years, including after a former officer, now facing a murder charge, shot and killed a stabbing suspect in June 2021.

Logan Barr, the former Forest Hill police officer, was released on $50,000 bond on the murder charge after he shot and killed 32-year-old Michael Lee Ross Jr. His attorneys said last year that Barr acted in self defense, but the Texas Rangers concluded in an investigation that Ross posed no threat because he was 20 feet away.

Barr’s next appearance in court is scheduled for next year, according to court records.

The city also decided not to renew an agreement in August with the Fort Worth school district to provide Forest Hill police officers to work as school resource officers at campuses in the city, including at David K. Sellars Elementary School, according to a letter sent by City Manager Venus Wehle to the school district.

Sellars Elementary was the scene of a shooting the morning of Oct. 11, in which investigators said a cafeteria employee, Yolanda Gibbs, was killed by her boyfriend in the school parking lot as she was arriving for work about 30 minutes before the building opened for students. The suspect drove away and was later found dead in Fort Worth.

Wehle told the Star-Telegram she made the decision to stop providing school resource officers because of staffing. She reviewed information including staffing and shifts at the police department before making the decision. Depending on the day and shift, because police are short-staffed, there may only be two or three officers on patrol at a time, Wehle said. She notified the school district in June because she didn’t want them to have to scramble at the start of the school year to staff security .

“I have to protect our citizens, and of course that includes our schools, but new state law said the schools would be responsible for security,” Wehle said.

The Forest Hill police headquarters has been without working toilets for months, another factor that could be hindering efforts to hire new officers and contributing to attrition. Burns said the city has taken steps to get plumbing in the building fixed, but he doesn’t know exactly how long it will take.

He said he doesn’t think broken toilets have played a major role in attrition at the department, but does think getting them fixed could make life easier.

“I can say that if you have nice facilities, nice equipment, nice vehicles, nice uniforms, if you have all those other things, that kind of makes you want to stay,” Burns said. “You’ll say, ‘that’s a gold standard. That’s a great department there, they’re doing things right.’ ”

Wehle said many things throughout the city were neglected in the past, under different leadership. The city is working now to catch up on the improvements and repairs that need to be made, she said.

Addressing the problems

Earlier this year, the city council approved an effort to solve problems with recruiting and retaining officers by offering the $10,000 retention bonus for an 18-month commitment and suspending the requirement for a civil service entrance exam for new officers.

According to minutes from that Aug. 28 council meeting, Burns was not a fan of suspending the entrance exam but would go along with whatever the council decided. According to records from the city, no new officers have been hired since the council approved the two measures and two of the resignations came after the city approved the bonus.

“The retention bonus was made to help the officers who were already there who might have thought about leaving for greener pastures,” Burns said. “There are only two officers that decided not to take the retention bonus.”

Welhe said the department is already processing applications from potential officers who were waiting for the next chance to take a civil service exam, which would have been in December.

Burns said better pay and a broader offering of assignments — like SWAT, motorcycle, mounted or K9 divisions — have contributed to some officers’ decisions to leave. When it comes to recruiting new officers, Burns said being a smaller city competing with every other agency in the area has its challenges.

The department used to offer some of those specialized assignments, but with the number of officers shrinking, those options are becoming less realistic. And Forest Hill is “fishing out of the same pond” as larger departments like Burleson, Fort Worth, Dallas, Arlington and the mid-cities, he said.

“It’s kind of like a person being recruited to play college ball,” Burns said. “Some departments are pulling all the stops.”

Those stops include things like take-home vehicles, more updated equipment and even free Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes. Forest Hill is working to get up-to-date on the equipment field, but some things just aren’t realistic for a department in a smaller city, Burns said.

Wehle said city management is looking into things they can do to make recruiting easier. Offering signing bonuses is one possibility, but will depend on what the budget for next year looks like, she said.

According to a pay scale acquired by the Star-Telegram through an open records request, Forest Hill police pay starting wages ranging from $21.50 an hour for recruits going through the academy to $45.60 an hour for captains. The highest pay any employee can reach under the current scale is $53.55 for a captain who has been with the department for more than 11 years.

Those who have stayed will play a big part in rebuilding the department, Burns said.

“I’m very proud of them about the dedication and sacrifice they’re making while we’re short staffed,” Burns said. “The people that are there are the ones that should be there, to help with the rebuilding process. Those officers are dedicated, resilient, working hard to keep the city safe.”

But rebuilding what Burns described as a “young department” comes with challenges not seen by agencies with more officers with more experience.

Many of the officers taking on leadership roles in the department are the same age or not much older than the officers they’re in charge of, Burns said. There’s a learning curve there.

He’s also had to address the concerns of harassment, low morale and a “toxic work environment” mentioned in several resignation letters.

Burns has held required classes to address those problems. But there’s still work to be done.

“We’re always working to increase the morale, build the morale, build a safe, friendly workplace,” Burns said. “The culture, the department has been neglected for a while. As the newer chief, it’s my job to create a safe, friendly work environment, free of harassment and all that stuff.”

Wehle said she believes many of those concerns are “growing pains” that have come with changes brought to the department by Burns.

“I think anytime you bring in someone new and they make a lot of changes, and often times the changes need to be made because they should have been made in the past,” Wehle said. “We don’t take anything lightly here. If there are issues we address them. If there are problems we address them.”

Burns has personally been going to recruitment events and job fairs. On Tuesday, the department held one at a fitness center in the city. But even with those efforts, city records indicate the department has not recruited a single new officer this year.

Money probably plays a part in that, Burns said, but there are also people who don’t want to work for a smaller department. It could put Forest Hill at a disadvantage, but Burns said the only thing he can really do at this point is make sure the department is making an impression at recruitment fairs and make any efforts he can to put the open jobs out there.