Officers' departures spur concern 26 have left since June 1996, chief says

Low morale blamed

Pension benefits, higher salaries elsewhere also noted

September 04, 1997|By Jill Hudson | Jill Hudson,SUN STAFF

Many Howard County police officers are leaving the force, raising concerns about the department's ability to attract and retain good people.

"We are losing young officers who are at the beginning of their careers," said police union President John Paparazzo, calling attention to the problem. "We should be doing everything that we can to keep them here."

Howard Police Chief James N. Robey agreed yesterday that officers are leaving the force, noting that 26 have left since June 14, 1996. The department has 329 authorized positions.

By paying overtime and moving officers from one task to another, Robey says, he is able to maintain the same number of officers on the street.

Robey and Paparazzo disagree about why officers are leaving. The union president blames a combination of low morale, the Howard County Council's decision earlier this year to reject enhanced retirement benefits for police and firefighters, and the lure of higher starting salaries in other police departments.

Robey says officers are leaving for a variety of reasons. Of the 26 who have left in the last 14 months, he says, only 12 have left to join other police departments. The other vacancies were caused by officers who retired or resigned.

But eight more officers have applied for jobs in area jurisdictions, Robey acknowledges. And he says the department is at a disadvantage in recruiting.

"The Howard community deserves the best it can get, and we have to start getting competitive with all the rest of the jurisdictions around us," Robey said. "If the County Council had voted to approve the retirement package, we would have had ample opportunity to fill these vacancies and we would have almost been up to full strength by now."

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker said he "didn't know if the retirement issue is the problem here. But we're all very concerned about people leaving the force."

He said some are leaving "because they like to go where the action is and some have left law enforcement altogether."

The police union says the exodus from the force is much larger than Robey would like to admit.

Paparazzo asserts that in addition to the 26 officers who have left the force, 15 more Howard officers are looking to move to other police departments by the end of the year.

Other departments

Eleven Howard officers expect to join the Prince George's County police force within the next several months, two more want to move to Baltimore County, one plans to transfer to the state police and one is in the process of joining the FBI, Paparazzo says.

"The shame of it is that we have a very well-trained police force that's leaving to go somewhere else where they'll be stars," Paparazzo said.

He said staying in Howard becomes difficult "when there is absolutely nothing to entice them to stay when every other jurisdiction can offer them more and everyone around them here miserable."

Robey said, however, "You hear all kind of rumors about how many have left. All I've heard about are the two who've applied in Anne Arundel County, the four who've applied in Prince George's, one who wants to go to the FBI and one who's applied to the Maryland state police."

He says other police departments face staffing dilemmas, too.

"The hiring process is continuous on every police force," he said, adding that Howard's numbers are not out of line with rates in other departments.

The department will have more openings to fill next year %J because the council has authorized the hiring of 22 officers. That means that the Howard Police Department potentially will have as many as 63 openings by early 1998, according to the union's numbers.

Retirement benefits

Paparazzo says the council's vote on retirement benefits -- rejecting a proposal to lower the threshold from 25 to 20 years -- started the exodus of officers to departments like those in Baltimore and Prince George's counties that offer 20-year retirement.

The biggest obstacle Howard police may face now -- besides a dwindling police force -- is low morale, according to Paparazzo. "The fact is that people don't like it here and morale is terrible," he said.

Paparazzo asserts that there are even police officers in supervisory positions looking to jump ship.

Police sergeants and lieutenants are planning to form a union this month for the first time in the department's history. Under the current system, only police officers are eligible to join the union and vote on proposals that will go before the council.

Sgt. Kenneth Fleishmann, president of the nonunion Howard County Police Supervisors Alliance, which has 57 sergeants and lieutenants, said the idea of a supervisors' union came about because "Howard's retirement system is one of the worst in the area, and we should have a say in trying to change that."

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