How to Get Pay Raises for Your Campus Public Safety Department Officers

Published: June 12, 2024Episode #98
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It’s no secret that a key ingredient to having an effective campus public safety department is ensuring officers are paid a competitive wage. However, since the pandemic, keeping officer salaries competitive has become a significant challenge with the inflation rate skyrocketing to 7% in 2021 and 6.5% the following year. Although inflation dropped quite a bit in 2023 and this year, it’s still higher than before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, campus public safety departments have historically struggled to keep their officer salaries competitive with other local law enforcement departments, security agencies, and businesses. The problem of effectively recruiting and then retaining campus public safety officers has only grown over the past several years with the U.S. economy as a whole experiencing a labor shortage.

This was the challenge facing Keene State College Director of Campus Safety Chris Buckley when he started his position at the school in July 2020. At that time, the starting pay rate for officers ranged from $14.69 to $17 per hour.

Low Pay Resulted in Low Campus Officer Retention and Morale

“We were well within COVID, and as you know, everyone had struggles with hiring and retention at that time,” says Buckley. “Looking at our pay in comparison to other employers, including a main competitor of ours, which was a local medical center, we were struggling. During COVID, local restaurants and other businesses had signs advertising as much as $650 to $750 per week. Some of our officers left for small pay raises like 50 cents up to a dollar [per hour] after serving approximately one year with us.”

The low pay rate impacted Buckley’s ability to attract new recruits. In one four-month period, his department had four vacancies but no applicants.

To address this issue, he embarked on a multi-pronged approach that monetized the fiscal impacts that his department and Keene State experienced as a result of the low rate of officer hiring and retention. He also addressed the need for a culture change in the department so that it would be more student-centered.

Although the process took more than a year, Buckley’s efforts paid off. The starting pay rate for officers is now $20 per hour, and campus sergeants are paid more than $24 per hour.

The salary increases have resulted in Buckley’s department more easily recruiting and then retaining officers. Scheduling is also easier and more flexible, officers are more available for training, the amount of overtime paid has gone down, and department morale has greatly improved.

It’s for this and many other reasons that Buckley has been named as one of this year’s Campus Safety Director of the Year Higher Education finalists. The 2024 Campus Safety Director of the Year winners will be announced at this summer’s Campus Safety Conference being held in Atlanta, July 8-10.

The interview transcript is below.

Watch the full interview here or listen on the go on Apple or Spotify.

Transcription of Chris Buckley’s interview:

(AI transcription)

Robin Hattersley: Now first we need to know a little bit about your department. So if you can describe it, how many sworn or non-sworn officers you have, are they contracted or in-house and how many employees do you actually have?

Chris Buckly: Great. So before we start, I’d like to just tell you a little bit about our department and how we operate. So our department is committed to supporting the educational mission of Keen State College. It’s our goal to create and maintain a safe and secure environment through effective, efficient, and consistent service to every member of our college community. Our campus safety department might be different than others that you might have seen around before. Our department responsibilities include but are not limited to protection of life and property, responding to calls for assistance, documenting activity, preventing and deterring crime, reviewing an extensive CCTV that we have system on campus mitigating risks, providing educational programming to students, faculty and staff, ensuring compliance with the policies and regulations of the college. Also of the ordinances of the city of Keene and the laws of the state of New Hampshire. Campus safety is an integral part of our campus and our officers are on duty 24 hours a day, year round.

RH: Are they sworn or non-sworn?

CB: So our offices are non-sworn. We do have a very close working relationship with the Keen New Hampshire Police Department. There is actually a liaison officer who was assigned to the campus and we work with them very closely. The Keen State College Department of Campus Safety currently has nine officers, two sergeants, an administrative assistant who also serves as our parking coordinator, an assistant director of campus safety, a director of campus safety, one part-time officer, and one part-time dispatcher.

RH: Now, before you got your officers their pay increase, how much were they actually being paid and how did that compare to the pay rate in your community?

CB: Well, when I started with the Department of Campus Safety in July of 2020, the starting hourly rate for our campus safety officers ranged from $14.69 to $17 per hour. Officers that came in with related experience to campus safety or security experience were paid slightly higher, but they did not exceed $17. They were part of the university system of New Hampshire PayScale and at that time it was a pay grade eight. The salary range was from $14.69 to the high end of around $24. At that same time, our campus safety sergeants were ranging from $16.05 to approximately $26 and again, that was also part of the SNH Pay grade 10 with regard to pay and compensation in the area. At that time when I embarked on this mission, we were well within covid and as you know, everyone had struggles with hiring and retention at that time. Looking at our pay in comparison to other employees, including a main competitor of ours, which was a local medical center, we were struggling. We were not competing, as you probably know, during covid local restaurants and other businesses had signs advertising as much as $650 to $750 per week. There were other local employers that were offering similar pay rates and many of our officers were looking for an increase in pay. Some of our officers left for small rate pay raises like 50 cents up to a dollar after serving approximately one year with us.

RH: Wow. So how did that rate affect your ability to attract and retain good officers? I think it must have made it really difficult.

CB: It was extremely challenging. There were times where approximately a four month window, we didn’t actually have a single applicant, and at that time we had four vacancies. Not only did the low pay rate impact our ability to hire and retain, it also caused us a difficult time attracting qualified people. Unfortunately, a number of the folks that did apply had very little or no experience, and this low pay rate impacted the morale of our officers. There were frequently rumors of the officers on the team that were seeking other employment. The other big piece for us was the low pay rate and our hiring complications. It caused collateral damage within our department. What I mean by collateral damage is we were unable to create different shifts that many of the officers were looking for. Anytime that we had a sick call out or someone requested a day off or training or a vacation time, other officers were required to fill in because we have a minimum of two officers working shift. At that time, all of our officers were dual trained. We have a 24 hour dispatch center that’s staffed by a campus safety officer at all times and then one officer on patrol. The other piece that was really challenging for us was the limited staffing that we had really limited our ability to send officers to any training and enhancing their professional development was very challenging during that time.

RH: So how did you go about getting the pay raise, what steps did you actually take and how long did it take?

CB: This mission that I will call that I went on during this time, it took approximately 12 to 14 months. In order to do this, I used a multi-prong approach in my goal to obtain a pay increase for the officers. Our first approach, my first approach really started with a change in culture within our department. When I first arrived, our department had an okay reputation on campus. Some of our officers worked well with campus community members. Some of our officers worked well with students while others were more reserved. It quickly learned that we needed to retool our approach and I needed to move towards a more student-centered approach. Now, someone may ask is what do I mean by a more student-centered approach? And I can provide two short examples of what I mean by a more student centered approach as most campuses do. We have parking policies that are enforced by our campus safety officers and student parking enforcement officers, and as many colleges probably face, we have a higher demand for parking than we have parking spots.

At that time, our policy allowed for us to ticket a vehicle multiple times a day that was parked illegally. I learned that officers were competing against each other to see how many tickets could be issued on a single vehicle before a student took action to remedy the problem. And as a result of that, I had two interactions with students. That happened over a very short period of time that really illustrated to me that the culture needed to change swiftly. The first interaction was a student who came to my office to discuss a stack of tickets that he accumulated on his vehicle while he was away due to a death in the family. It was one of those situations that happened suddenly the parents of the student had picked him up on their way through town. It should be noted though the student was parked illegally.

Over the course of five days, several tickets were issued to the vehicle. Upon the student’s return who was still grieving the passing of his family member, he discovered that he had numerous tickets on his car. This added a real unnecessary amount of stress to the student. Upon his return quickly became evident to me how detrimental this situation was to the student. It was damaging the reputation of our campus safety department and some of the officers who issued the violations. The second one was a very similar situation related to parking with a student who lost his keys. Again, it started off with a student who was parked illegally. He acknowledged that he was being lazy and was only going to park there for a minute, and then discovered that his keys were lost after having a conversation with the student. As a result of both of the interactions, I really felt that it was time for a change.

And so shortly after those interactions, we had a team meeting. I discussed at length with my officers about problem solving. I explained that our first interaction, which was the case for both of these students, needed to be positive whenever possible. I stressed the importance of problem solving within the boundaries of our policies and gave officers flexibility to meet students in the middle find middle ground. I also challenged ’em to come up with solutions to problems and just not pass the buck or kick the can down the road. One of the other steps that I took was really involved, improved and increased collaboration between the departments that we worked with most often. One of those departments was our Department of Community Living, which is residential life on many other campuses. I worked very hard with them to improve and enhance our collaboration. That partnership and the increased collaboration had immediate impact on our reputation as a department, and I’m happy to say at this point that the relationship between our two departments has never been stronger.

There is a mutual trust and respect between our two departments. We have a great team atmosphere and we work together and not only do we collaborate, but we collaborate daily and if not multiple times. One of the keys is that their team is led by a compassionate, strong leader and we were able to come to common ground very quickly. The third approach involved reviewing student feedback from climate surveys. These climate surveys provided valuable information in areas where my officers needed to improve or areas where we as a department could improve. We utilized the use of a newly founded student advisory panel to seek real time input from students. It also allowed the students to interact with the campus safety leadership and that helped us build trust with the students. The fourth piece, and this was probably by far one of the most challenging, was to document the cost and or cause and effect associated with hiring, training, and retention.

Through the course of research. I discovered that over seven years prior to this project, we had a significant number of officers who come who came to us, and I would describe those stays as short stays as the number was approaching 50 officers who left the college of a variety of reasons, I decided that I needed to take a deeper dive. Now, in the time that I had been there, we had lost three or four officers and that had something to do with the change in the culture and the change in leadership. I also discovered during exit interviews with these employees, main reasons why they left were pay and schedule and the time of some of the folks that left ranged from weeks to just a couple years. As we know when we train people up and they become effective, the departures dramatically impacted our effectiveness.

They impacted our schedule. It impacted the morale in all aspects of our efficiency and effectiveness. So what I did was I embarked on a mission to monetize the costs that were associated with the departure of these officers. The costs went from the up, which was the hiring process for our campus safety leadership team, our human resources field training stipends, equipment that we purchased and quickly hung it up back up on a rack hours. We spent training and other costs association with associated with retention, and I quickly came to realize that these costs were staggering and the monetized amount that I had was close to a half a million dollars in training and lost revenue.

The fifth approach was in a time of covid where we were embarking on new policies and procedures as it related to social distancing and testing. We did not have additional staff to help facilitate these events, and so I reached into the campus safety team and asked them and encouraged them to help us step up and answer the call. And this went from setting up and breakdown of covid testing. We worked in very less than ideal conditions in January in New Hampshire with drive-up testing so that we could successfully return our students to the campus and the efforts, many of the efforts that I’ve mentioned above were recognized and were acknowledged by both the campus community and the campus administration.

RH: And I’m assuming all that information, what you presented to the administrators and all that data basically helps prove your point that you guys are a really valuable asset to the organization. Right?

CB: Yes. I mean, that was a big part of it. It was my boss who had come into her role as a vice president was new to overseeing the campus safety department, and so it took time for me to really explain to her what our role is. I know you asked what steps did I take. My boss is amazing. I had a great opportunity to voice my concerns early with my direct supervisor who’s the vice president for enrollment and student engagement. Additionally, I had communicated my concerns with our human resources department and asked initially for assistance with recruiting new candidates. I also asked our human resources department for a salary analysis of the existing campus safety team based on what I was seeing for their salary range and as it compared to other salaries for similar type work in the area. I’ve also prepared a presentation, a spreadsheet, and a presentation which really monetized the financial impacts that our department and the institution was having with the lack of retention, hiring and salary range. And did some projections about how if we had taken and paid an office or a dollar extra an hour, there was a cost savings associated with having to backfill that spot for on an overtime

RH: Do you remember what that is? Just what that the cost difference when if you raise the pay rate of an officer by a dollar, do you remember what that was?

CB: The exact cost?

RH: Yeah, or the difference in cost. The cost savings you would’ve achieved if you had raised the salary by a dollar.

CB: There are a number of variables which make that number a moving target because it’s hard to project the number of overtime shifts that they’re going to work based on because that number is compounded, but realistically, it was like a three to $5,000 change as an expense to pay that person an extra dollar. And then as you project the number of overtime hours for that officer, having an officer come and work for a year and then leaving with the salary that we had, we were to be able to quickly regain that balance. The other part that was one of the more important pieces for me was having an experienced officer who is familiar with our policies and procedures and familiar with our campus and familiar with the student body, we only really get one chance to get it right on a mental health call or a student in crisis. We really only get one chance to get that right. And so having an inexperienced officer who’s coming in and responding to those calls certainly increases the risk of that incident not going well. And so the more experienced officers that we had was increasing our likelihood that we would be successful in these interactions.

RH: And of course, how do you put a dollar amount on that? You really can’t,

CB: Can’t put a dollar amount on it. But when I was talking earlier about increasing and improving collaboration, the more experienced officers had built an established reputations, had developed friendships and professional relationships with other professional staff on the campus and community directors and community assistants, and provides a certain level of comfort to those folks when there is an emergency situation that they need to respond.

RH: So what are the offices being paid now and what have been the results of the pay raise?

CB: Well, the pay raises were dramatically impacted where we are staffing wise. Currently, our starting pay was increased from what was the $14.69 to $17 was increased to $20. The human resources department has a policy that they use to calculate related work experience, education and internal equity. And so many of the officers received upwards of a $3 raise or close to a $3 raise in that, which was great for morale. Our campus safety sergeants are also now starting above $24 per hour. With this increase, it has been dramatically easier for us to recruit new employees with the higher starting rate. We have attracted more qualified officers, we’ve had more candidates in our hiring pools, and I’m very happy to say at this time we are fully staffed. This full staffing has really created a situation where we’re able to focus more energies on professional development. We’re actually able to build a much better schedule. We have several officers now that are working a four 10 hour shift, which gives them three days off. It’s also is providing us with an opportunity to be more creative with future scheduling, and it has really changed the morale of the officers. Additionally, as we’ve gotten to full staffing and our officers are getting off field training, it has provided us on some shifts with a third officer so that if someone calls out sick or someone takes a day off, it’s not triggering us having to pay overtime to fill the shift.

RH: Do you have any advice to your peers who are going through the same thing? What did you do right and what maybe could you have done a little bit better?

CB: Well, I would like to stress upon the importance of collaboration with the community partners. The collaboration that we did really enhance the value of our department. It’s so important when you’re collaborating to demonstrate flexibility and compassion, which is what we did. Second, it took a lot of research to understand what local groups were paying their folks. A relationship that I had with other campus safety directors and other local institutions was able to provide me some understanding in the difference in roles. And the difference in roles was able to help me advocate for my personnel and my staff. And what I mean by that is some of the campus safety officers merely are eyes and provide a key service. Our campus safety officers are not just a security force. They do provide assistance with lockouts at times. But our officers were conducting investigations on a variety of situations on the campus. We were working collaboratively with the Keen Police Department. We were providing thoughtful and thorough comprehensive reviews of our CCTV on the campus and card access reports, and we were able to provide law enforcement tools to aid in their successful prosecution. I think the other big part was ensuring that my officers were more approachable and really embracing the student centered approach. In the feedback surveys that we’ve received since we started this initiative, we’ve received compliments frequently about how much more approachable the officers are. And the other piece I would say is empower officers to problem solve, and that really was the difference.

RH: Great. Chris, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you.



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