Police Fight for a Longer Work Day?

April 10, 1995

James Fitzgerald, president of the union that represents the Howard County police, has an unfortunate way of expressing his position on contract negotiations under way with the county. Unless the union gets what it wants, Mr. Fitzgerald says, public safety will suffer.

While Mr. Fitzgerald might not have meant his remarks as a threat, they do seem designed more to scare than inform. At the root of the dispute between county and police negotiators is the issue of work schedules. Police want to maintain the 9 1/2 -hour work days they have had for a decade. Under that schedule, police work four days a week. But county officials want the schedules changed to 8 1/2 -hour shifts, allowing officers to work five-day weeks.

The result is that officers would work 24 more days a year. It is a method to improve, not compromise, public safety.

The union's contention that shorter work days would mean fewer officers on patrol during shift changes exaggerates any real danger in making this switch. It is hardly unreasonable for the county to expect five-day weeks from officers. More routine patrolling by the same officer might even enhance safety.

Moreover, deployment under the county plan would add the equivalent of about 15 officers to the street. That does not mean the county would halt all new hiring: a new class of 27 recruits recently began, and County Executive Charles I. Ecker said he would like to hire 15 more in 1996.

Mr. Fitzgerald's assertion that officers working the revised schedule will be forced to rush their paperwork at the end of the day is silly; do they not have to rush through it at the close of a 9 1/2 -hour day? Although scheduling is a major stumbling block in the negotiations, salaries and retirement benefits are also at issue. Mr. Fitzgerald argues that the county needs to be more generous to compete with nearby counties, yet the nature of policing in Howard is not the same as in those more urban jurisdictions.

Howard government needs to tighten its belt across the board. Despite the enormous contribution of police, the department is not immune from fiscal pressures weighing on the county. We hope the on-going arbitration convinces union officials that they need to compromise with the county.

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