Police criticize contract tying recruits to county

October 02, 1994|By Ed Heard | Ed Heard,Sun Staff Writer

Howard County police union officials say a new contract binding 24 police recruits to a minimum of three years' service after completing training is evidence of morale problems in the 282-officer department.

"I don't favor it," said James Fitzgerald, president of the Howard County Police Officers Association. "When we have people here, they should want to stay here. There must be a problem here if we keep having people leaving. It's not the money that makes people leave; it's the morale."

The contract -- which the recruits are expected to sign tomorrow on their first day at the county police academy -- requires repayment of the $2,500 the county spends to train each recruit if a new officer leaves for another job before serving three years.

The money would be taken from a recruit's earnings or any leave benefits he accrues.

"I totally support it," Chief James Robey said of the contract. "We train our officers to work in Howard County, and we've gone through considerable expense to hire and train these officers."

Union officials estimate that the department loses a half-dozen officers a year to neighboring departments. This year, they say, at least five officers have left the department.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker said such a contract had been considered for years for county correctional officers, police, fire and sheriff's department employees. The new county contract is not out of line with those in other area departments, he said.

In Baltimore, for instance, police recruits are required to work at least one year for the city or pay back a portion of the $4,663 the city spends to train each new officer.

"Persons can feel free to leave; they don't have to stay," Mr. Ecker said. "It costs the county a lot to train people. We think we should be repaid."

Mr. Ecker said he has heard about a morale problem in the Police Department but that the attitude probably lingers from a countywide fiscal pinch in 1991.

"There was a time when people were not getting raises, or very little increases, and all county employees were furloughed a day. It was a general feeling of uneasiness," Mr. Ecker said. "I don't think there's a morale problem there now."

Howard officers have transferred to Montgomery and Prince George's counties in recent years to work in a better atmosphere, union officials say.

"We see people move because [other departments] treat people better, manage better and have better benefits," said Dan Besseck, the union secretary.

Howard County officers are eligible for retirement after 25 years; those in Prince George's County can retire after 20 years.

Entry level pay varies among area police agencies. Baltimore officers start at $23,000, Montgomery County's at $26,803, Prince George's County's at $27,465 and Howard's at $26,012.

The union has not filed a formal objection to the new contract, Mr. Fitzgerald said, because the recruits are probationary employees and not full members of the union.

"It sends a message to people that the county is throwing its hands up and saying we're going to force people to stay here because we can't make this a better place," Mr. Besseck said. "They're going to put it on the back burner and worry about it three years from now.

"It's easy for the county to paint a picture of a modernized department in a relatively safe county, but that's not the internal picture. Once people get here they get disgusted and disillusioned very fast."

Many of the recruits who expect to graduate from the academy next spring say they are not concerned.

"I think it's a good idea. I'm looking forward to it," Christopher S. Johanson, who worked for six years for the U.S. Secret Service in Washington, said of the contract. "There are guys who are taking the job I want for a year and then looking somewhere else."

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