Why do county's police want to make this trade?


March 02, 1997|By NORRIS WEST

IT'S TOO BAD that Howard County has combined the idea of changing police workshifts to 12 hours with the more contentious issue of police retirement.

The police union wants to swap. They would agree to extend their workday from 9 1/2 to 12 hours if the county agrees to allow them to collect full retirement benefits -- 50 percent of their pay -- after 20 years instead of the current 25.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker has endorsed the trade, largely because number crunchers have concluded that savings from eliminating shift changes would more than offset the cost of higher payments to the officers' pension plan. Fortunately, Republicans on the County Council appear to be doing what they do best -- guarding their wallets.

It would be risky to trade the experience of skilled veteran officers, many of whom surely would bolt to second careers, for a relatively new experiment in law enforcement scheduling that might or might not work for the county.

Although many jurisdictions have 20-year retirement plans for officers, Anne Arundel County is going in the other direction, bringing new recruits up to Howard County's 25-year standard.

Besides, we'd like to keep our officers on the force because we value their contributions. These old vets, including those who would retire in their early 40s under a 20-year system, bring valuable know-how to the job every shift and can guide new recruits.

This is not professional sports, after all, where losing a step or two makes the difference between an all-star and a has-been. Discount the times that a police officer chases a fleet burglar down some Columbia bike path, and they are more similar to most employees in the work world: After 20 years, they know their business better.

Also, the county may never be able to return to a 25-year plan if it agrees to the proposal.

But it would be able to reverse a decision to use a new schedule for police officers. Although it could be dangerous to link a 12-hour schedule to a permanent program, it might be worthwhile to consider it separately.

An increasing number of police departments in the country are trying the longer workdays for officers. Los Angeles and the 2,100-member Nassau County, N.Y. force are experimenting with the new schedule.

Sgt. Glenn Hansen, head of the county police department's research and planning unit, said he began exploring the new schedule by looking for reasons that it should not be used. But he's become a convert.

Indeed, there are good reasons for the trend. The longer schedules improve community policing and make administration easier by eliminating one shift change per day. Uncertain was whether officers would like the change, but almost universally, they approve.

In Howard County, officers would work alternating weeks of three and four days, to maintain an average workweek of 40 hours over the course of a year.

Not a bad deal. How many workers would refuse to extend their workday to 12 hours if it means having three days off one week and four days the next?

Police win both ways

Other departments that have tried the new schedule have reported that officers take fewer sick days and that morale has improved.

Sergeant Hansen says Howard County would save more than $900,000 a year by adopting the 12-hour shift because the department would be able to eliminate 15 vacant positions that it otherwise would have to fill.

But William W. Stenzel, director of the School of Police Staff and Command at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., is cautionary. "It's not a black and white issue," Dr. Stenzel says. "There are not all benefits and there are not all drawbacks."

He questions whether taxpayers realize any savings, saying, "I think it's pretty close to being a wash."

Several consultants following this experiment say department supervisors lose contact with their officers with so many gaps in the workweek. And calling officers to work a few hours on a day off can prove expensive if the local government must pay them for a full 12-hour shift.

Dr. Stenzel and other consultants say there is not enough evidence to determine whether the longer schedule exacts a fatigue or stress toll on officers at the end of a long shift.

More certain, he concludes, is that the schedule provides greater continuity for police investigations -- not a small matter.

The trend toward 12-hour shifts started in earnest in 1979 and has gained momentum over the last nine years. It continues to gain popularity among police departments nationwide while few experimenters have dropped it.

There certainly are enough reasons for the county to try a 12-hour shift. While police administrators and taxpayers might benefit from the new schedule, however, police officers could become the biggest beneficiaries of all, if they are like their counterparts elsewhere.

Why, then, is the police union giving the impression that it is making a big sacrifice to gain a prized and potentially lucrative earlier retirement?

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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