From protests to pay parity, keeping police on the street remains a challenge

From protests to pay parity, keeping police on the street remains a challenge

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comApril 5, 2014 

Once Columbus police hoped to have 524 officers by this year.

That was back in 2007, as voters got ready to head to the polls to vote on a 1 percent tax devoted primarily to public safety, promising first to swell the police ranks by 100 new positions, taking the full force from 388 to 488. The long-range plan, administrators said, was to keep growing the force as the city kept growing in population.

But those well-laid plans since have gone awry, though the sales tax passed and the police department grew, and the pay for police officers rose to levels comparable to cities of similar size.

The department today finds itself much better off than at the ebb of its staffing shortage, when it fell nearly 50 short of a full force of 388, and residents waited hours for an officer to arrive on a nonemergency call. At its worst, the force had only about 340 officers. As of Friday, it had 450.

The pay is competitive enough to aid recruiting, but keeping recruits here has proved problematic.

To see how we got to this point, you have to go back 10 years, at least, to when public safety workers' pay was so miserably low they held public demonstrations to draw attention to the issue.

The protests

This past Feb. 28 marked a milestone no one noticed, 10 years later.

It was the anniversary of the day in 2004 Columbus police protested for better pay outside a Southeastern Conference girls softball tournament at the South Commons complex that hosted the 1996 Olympic women's fast-pitch games.

The juxtaposition of disgruntled public safety workers at the sales-tax-funded fields that crowned the city's Olympic events was too much for some city leaders -- business leaders, primarily, not politicians.

The next week Fraternal Order of Police President Randy Robertson was summoned to a meeting at the Greater Columbus Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

Robertson said he and a Columbus Firefighters Association representative met with eight civic leaders, one a city councilor.

Because it was a private meeting with few public officials, Robertson declined last week to name who was present. He said he was grateful the meeting's organizers wanted to solve the problem, and soon. He said they told him other, more prominent businessmen who weren't present wanted to help.

And they did.

They agreed privately to fund a $172,000 city pay study to guide government leaders in restructuring and boosting city salaries. Primarily focused on the public safety workers who were driving the cause, it was to make the pay of all city workers competitive with comparable city governments.

But by the time the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government had the plan ready, it seemed too little, too late, and no one knew how to pay for it. The voters in November 2004 soundly defeated a proposed 1 percent sales tax for city operations by a vote of 60 percent to 40 percent. It would have raised the city's overall sales tax rate to 8 percent, more than most were willing to stomach.

In the months to follow, police morale plunged as the department hit a critical shortage. At its worst, the force of 388 sworn officers fell at least 47 short. On police radio, dispatchers' calls for "any available unit" became common. A rash of car wrecks in a rush-hour thunderstorm could so tie up patrol officers that response times on all but the most critical 911 calls could drag for hours.

Crime rates rose, and soon the police were not the only ones enraged.

'Bloodbath'

City and business leaders, and public safety representatives, got a private preview of the pay plan on Oct. 26, 2005.

It was expected to cost $10.2 million. Robertson called it "a good first step." Columbus councilors said the city didn't have the money.

The money they didn't have became its own issue, as the next year they said they had to cut 150 city jobs because of an anticipated $9 million revenue shortfall in the general fund.

One city worker called it a "bloodbath." Then-Mayor Bob Poydasheff called it "right-sizing" -- reducing the overall workforce to a sustainable level.

The year 2006 became memorable for its intense scrutiny of city finances. At the same time the city cut jobs, it proposed a first-phase implementation of the pay plan to bring salaries from 81 percent to 92 percent of market rates, at an estimated cost of $7.2 million.

It also had a series of revenue debacles, proving the government had not been collecting all the money it could in landfill and ambulance fees, among other sources. The city finance director resigned. The sheriff's office was called in to investigate the finance department, revealing what the sheriff called "a big mess."

The pay plan that was expected to improve morale had a downside. Top administrators who made the most money would get big salary increases.

At the time, police recruits with no college degree started at $23,800, and those with an associate degree got $25,023. With a four-year degree, they started at $26,274; and with a master's degree, $27,588.

The proposed pay plan was to raise that to $27,832 with no degree; $28,528 with two years of college; and an additional $1,200 for each degree beyond that.

During a council budget review committee meeting on May 23, 2006, when the police department was 44 officers short, District 6 Councilor Gary Allen noted just how ticked off his constituents were.

"It's almost criminal that we can't hire a policeman in Columbus, Georgia," he said, later adding, "I get emails and phone calls almost daily, and it's not just from public safety families; it's from citizens. I've had people wag their finger in my face, saying, 'I am not voting for another penny for the city until you address the police pay.'"

The pay plan passed, for the 2007 fiscal year that began July 1, 2006. It cost $8.4 million of an overall budget of $193.6 million. The final toll in job cuts was around 100 total, but most of the positions were vacant. Thirty-three full-time and 17 part-time workers were laid off.

The public was not satisfied. That November, former Columbus Police Chief Jim Wetherington beat Poydasheff 54 percent to 47 percent. In a December runoff, District 1 Councilor Nathan Suber lost to Jerry "Pops" Barnes, whom the FOP endorsed.

By June 2007, six months after Wetherington took office pledging to restore the government's credibility, the police department had just 16 vacancies, with 34 recruits in training, 14 of those already riding with experienced officers in the field.

But public confidence in city government did not immediately rebound. On Nov. 6, 2007, voters rejected a referendum that would have allowed council to create "tax-allocation districts," or TADs, to spur development. The vote was 51 percent to 49 percent. Some voters said they just didn't trust city leaders.

So critics were doubtful when Wetherington said in 2008, he would push for a never-ending sales tax aimed primarily at improving public safety.

He promised 70 percent of the 1 percent tax expected to generate $36 million a year would go to hire 100 more police officers and improve their pay, along with other public safety needs, and 30 percent would go to infrastructure -- roads and bridges and such.

On Feb. 12, 2008, as council voted to put the referendum on the ballot July 15, the police department was 13 officers short of 388.

At the same time, Wetherington's budget for the city's 2009 fiscal year finally took all city workers' pay to what the pay plan said was 100 percent of the market rate. The starting pay for a rookie police officer then was $30,152. Wetherington's budget increased it to $31,660.

In July, as voters prepared to cast ballots, the police department was just four officers short of 388.

Hiring new recruits had been "no problem," Police Chief Ricky Boren said then.

"Our problem has been holding onto them," he said. "We have to be able to retain them."

The city said that if the tax passed, it had long-range plans to employ 524 police officers by the year 2014.

The tax passed 61 percent to 39 percent. The police department started swelling its ranks to reach the new goal of 488 officers.

The public thought the problem was solved.

Backslide

But other factors fouled the effort. The economy sank into recession. The sales tax expected to generate $36 million a year fell short, bringing $31.9 million in 2010; $32.5 million in 2011; $34.7 million in 2012; and $33.8 million in 2013.

What Boren said in 2007 about the challenges of retaining rather than recruiting officers proved to be constant. Soon the gains again could not keep up with the losses.

Here, according to the police department, are the numbers going back to 2007, when the city kicked off its drive to establish a force of 488:

• 2007: 66 hired; 55 lost; net 11.

• 2008: 70 hired; 33 lost; net 37.

• 2009: 104 hired; 46 lost; net 58.

• 2010: 44 hired; 41 lost; net 3.

• 2011: 44 hired; 46 lost; net minus 2.

• 2012: 40 hired; 48 lost; net minus 8.

• 2013: 41 hired; 55 lost; net minus 14.

Officers and city administrators cite multiple reasons for the retention problem.

Echoing something Columbus native Lem Miller said when he was appointed assistant police chief last December, the FOP's Robertson last week said some officers don't leave Columbus for better-paying jobs at other police departments, though that's an issue, too.

They leave law enforcement altogether, he said.

He calls it the "CSI effect." They watch TV cop shows about crime scene investigation and think that's what the job is going to be, gritty but glamorous.

Then they're sent out on patrol, answering 911 calls, writing speeding tickets, dealing with meth labs and addicts, and learn that will be their job for years to come, because no one starts as a homicide detective.

'It's who you are'

Stress takes its toll, too. Officers are susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia and "hyper-vigilance," or always being on guard, looking for trouble, Robertson said. Relationships with friends and family suffer.

"Law enforcement is not what you do. It's who you are," he said.

Some recruits learn that's not who they want to be.

Morale is a constant issue, too, he said. And when morale plummets among experienced officers and supervisors, it trickles down to their subordinates.

"That attitude is infectious," Robertson said.

Officers feel neither the public nor the politicians appreciate what they do. Residents see a fire truck and feel safe, Robertson said. They see a police officer and get scared. Will they get pulled over? Has a crime happened near their home? Why have the police come?

The parity in pay among police officers, sheriff's deputies, deputy marshals and firefighters enables a trained and experienced police officer tired of answering 911 calls to transfer to another city agency without any loss in pay.

While the police department can't keep its ranks full, the Columbus Department of Fire & Emergency Medical Services last week was short only two firefighters out of 381, and had 300 applications on file.

The Muscogee County Sheriff's Office had only five vacancies out of 243 deputies and five out of 74 correctional officers. It first puts recruits to work in the jail as their training continues, and can pull from that pool when it needs deputies on the street.

When the police department needs officers on the street to answer 911 calls -- its top priority -- it pulls from the detective division or other specialized units. Gaps in the detective division may be filled by experienced investigators who exclusively had been assigned to work cold cases. Already impeded by the passage of time, those investigations further are delayed.

Public service suffers because the department has to cut hours for desk services, the front-counter officers who provide residents with copies of accident and crime reports for insurance claims and such. Once open around the clock, the front desk currently is closed from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Those who can't make it there during the day are out of luck.

Frustration

Robertson cites other reasons law enforcement officers remain disgruntled:

• Because of health care and pension costs, some have lost $5,200 to $6,500 in their annual salaries.

• Because some high-ranking personnel are staying on the job as long as they can, upward mobility is limited.

• Some are frustrated with politics. "These politicians will jump on the bandwagon of a special interest group condemning the actions of a law-enforcement officer or agency without having all of the facts or without waiting for an investigation to be completed," Robertson wrote in a statement.

• They are frustrated with the news media: "Local media seem to focus on writing stories concerning public safety from the most negative point of view."

• They feel they are bullied if they publicly express their discontent: "City leadership must move away from bully tactics and threats in order to prevent law enforcement officers from communicating about issues within their agency or department."

Teresa Tomlinson, elected mayor in 2010 when Wetherington retired from office, said her administration is working to recruit new officers and retain those already serving, having just launched a renewed campaign to lure applicants, but it is a constant challenge unlikely to end. She said the turnover rate currently appears to be holding steady at about 40 officers a year.

The city is working to close the gap, not just wringing its hands about the problem, she said.

Miller, the Columbus native and assistant police chief who as a child dreamed of becoming a police officer, said the department has faced that challenge for decades.

"I've been here over 40 years, and it's the same song, just a different sheet," he said. "It's nothing new whatsoever."

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