Is this for cops' benefit, or for sense of revenge?


March 30, 1997|By NORRIS WEST

REPORTS FROM around the country show that the 12-hour workday for police officers has raised morale in departments that have tried it.

"The officers love it," a Los Angeles police captain told the Los Angeles Times in 1995, in a typical remark shortly after the department began experimenting with longer shifts and shorter workweeks. "After being off for four days," he said, "they're in the mood to come back to work."

Police consultants nationwide have made similar findings. Officers in Howard County probably would welcome the new schedule, too -- one that would give them alternating three-day and four-day workweeks.

The strange thing here is that leaders in the county's police union are poised to deny their members a system they probably would welcome, primarily to get even with the County Council for not granting another benefit, a 20-year retirement plan.

Feeding revenge

The union's position feeds nothing else but its own sense of revenge. Union President John Paparazzo's quest to exact his pound of flesh from the council makes losers of everyone -- police officers, county administrators and taxpayers.

Departments throughout of the country have tried 12-hour shifts, often on an experimental basis. So far, only a handful of those departments have dropped the new schedule. Questions about fatigue remain; there is concern that longer workdays make officers less effective in the last hour or two of a long shift.

In Howard County, Police Chief James N. Robey wants to switch from a 9 1/2 -hour shift to a 12-hour day. Union leaders agreed to the change on the condition that the county allows officers to retire with full pension benefits -- half their salary -- after 20 years instead of the current 25 years.

GOP cost concerns

Republicans who control the County Council apparently will reject the proposal, justifiably concerned about the cost.

The county would save enough money from the new schedule to pay for higher premiums to the pension fund -- the 12-hour shifts would reduce overlap, allowing the county to eliminate 15 police positions, at a reported savings of nearly $1 million a year. But an earlier retirement would be a permanent financial commitment for taxpayers.

The schedule is promising, but it might not work. If it doesn't, it would be a long-term losing proposition for residents. Used as an experiment, as other departments nationwide have done, the county would have flexibility to drop the plan if it flops.

The council has approved other parts of the police contract, but Mr. Paparazzo, president of the Howard County Police Officers Association, says the police chief will not get his 12-hour shift if the council refuses to agree to the 20-year retirement proposal. His union represents 240 officers below the rank of sergeant.

The situation is different for county firefighters, who also sought to reduce the number of years they would have to work until full retirement from 25 years to 20.

They had offered other concessions they said would offset higher pension premiums, but learned that other parts of the negotiated contract would remain in place, even if council rejects the retirement plan.

Firefighters are threatening to sue to reopen negotiations.

Incidental to both deals is the upset defeat that council Republicans are about to hand GOP County Executive Charles I. Ecker in voting against the retirement plans.

Ecker's position

The executive contends that the county needed to improve the retirement plan for officers and firefighters to remain competitive with neighboring counties, some of which allow full pension benefits after 20 years.

But Anne Arundel County went in the opposite direction, raising the threshold for retirement from 20 years to 25 years for new police officers.

Howard has built a fine police force over the years, in large part because the county remains a more attractive place to do police work than some neighboring areas.

To be sure, officers deserve broad community support. In Howard and elsewhere, every domestic violence call carries the risk of injury or death. Many police officers choose their profession because of a heartfelt commitment to serve the public.

However, a 20-year retirement plan would have been overly generous. Mr. Paparazzo is so blinded by his desire to get the best deal for his members that he is throwing out a potential benefit, only because it is something administrators want.

The 12-hour workday could have been a terrific perk for his membership. It also could have saved county residents nearly $1 million.

In his vigor to punish Republican councilmen, Mr. Paparazzo is preparing to collect his pound of flesh.

When he finishes his cutting, he may realize that he and his members are among the wounded.

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

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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