Police turnover concerns council But members want more details before taking any action

26 leave since June 1996

Union head blames morale, retirement plan

chief disagrees

September 08, 1997|By Jill Hudson | Jill Hudson,SUN STAFF

Reacting to reports that county police are leaving the force for better pay and benefits elsewhere, Howard County Council members say it's premature to act without knowing more about the reasons for the turnover.

"I know that people are leaving for a variety of reasons," said C. Vernon Gray, a Democrat, "and I do think it's a cause for concern.

"But we need to find out exactly why they're leaving instead of speculating, which is all that's being done right now."

Last week, police union President John Paparazzo called attention to the problem of officers leaving, saying a combination of low morale, the council's decision to reject enhanced retirement benefits for police and firefighters, and the lure of better pay in other departments is driving them away.

While Howard police Chief James N. Robey agreed with Paparazzo that the force is losing members -- 26 of the department's authorized force of 329 have left since June 14, 1996 -- the two disagreed about why officers are leaving.

At issue, Paparazzo says, was a deal that would have given the police and firefighters unions retirement benefits after 20 years in exchange for scheduling changes and other concessions estimated to be worth more than $2 million a year to the county.

However, the council's Republican majority rejected the deal in April, offering an alternative that would have kept retirement at 25 years but improved benefits to retirees.

Talks between council and union representatives are at a standstill, Paparazzo said.

Robey says officers are leaving for a variety of reasons, and he cites retirements and resignations in addition to the job offers. Republican council member Darrel Drown agreed.

"They can't be leaving just because of that one issue -- because of the retirement deal," he said. "I do know that people come and go on each police force. There are a number of vacancies every year."

Republican Dennis Schrader, council chairman, said late last week:

"It's hard to look at this in a vacuum. My sense is that we should do some analysis of the labor market in the region and find out what the data supports."

According to official Howard police figures, 12 of the 26 officers who have left in the past 14 months did so to join other departments. Robey says he knows of eight more officers who have applied for other law enforcement jobs: two in Anne Arundel County, four in Prince George's, one to the FBI and another to the state police.

The police union contends that the number of those leaving is much larger than Robey cares to admit, asserting that 15 more officers are looking to move to other police departments by the end of the year.

Drown said departing police officers should be wary of believing the "grass is always greener" elsewhere.

"I do know one thing: If these officers who are leaving are thinking of going someplace like Prince George's, with all of their tax problems, I think they should probably look into that a little more carefully," he said.

Gray said many of the young officers who are leaving the county were disappointed by the defeat of the retirement deal.

"I was, frankly, very concerned at the time the retirement deal was rejected that we'd see a number of police officers leaving the county," said Gray, who supported the proposal. "Unfortunately, we're losing a lot of good police officers."

The Howard Police Department must be able to compete with other jurisdictions to discourage departures, Gray said. "We can look at trying to enhance their retirement package, looking to see if the 20-year package works better than the 25-year package."

One problem, Gray said, is that "we're kind of in a lame duck situation with the county executive, and nothing is going to happen until after the elections next year."

Schrader says it's up to County Executive Charles I. Ecker to find out more about Howard officers applying for jobs in other departments.

"Until then," he said, "it's hard to have any sort of discussion about this subject."

Pub Date: 9/08/97

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