Police officers note low morale As staff leaves, debate rages over reasons

September 14, 1997|By Jill Hudson | Jill Hudson,SUN STAFF

Barely three years into the job, Officer Jerry Heyn has turned in his badge.

Last week was his last with the Howard County Police Department, for which he patrolled the streets of Columbia as a young, aggressive patrol officer. He's joining the Secret Service.

If he hadn't gotten that job, he'd have taken another -- as long as it got him out of the Howard department. Many colleagues say they feel the same way.

"Every single officer I work with is at least thinking of leaving," said Heyn, 24, who counts at least 16 people who are applying for similar jobs in the area. "Even the ones who have eight, nine years in -- they are seriously contemplating leaving the county for another force. That's almost unheard of."

Heyn's comments underscore a fierce debate within the Howard County Police Department over the departures of many of its patrol officers -- 26 of the department's authorized force of 329 have left within the past 15 months, according to police officials. That figure is slightly higher than the department's average vacancy rate.

The numbers are growing, said John D. Paparazzo, president of the police union, who has been trying to call attention to the problem for the past month.

Paparazzo said a combination of the Howard County Council's decision to reject enhanced retirement benefits for police officers and firefighters this year and the lure of better pay in other departments is driving them away.

The proposed retirement deal would have given members of 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 while improving benefits to retirees.

Talks between council and union representatives are at a standstill and unlikely to resume before county elections next year, union officials say.

But Heyn said most police officers aren't leaving because of the retirement issue or higher wages in other departments.

"Morale problems are really what prompted me to look elsewhere for a job, and I know that it's the same for a lot of other officers, too," he said. "The bad thing is that cops talk to other cops and people from other jurisdictions know about the working conditions here."

Though many officers agree with Heyn, all who were interviewed requested anonymity for fear of reprisal from the department's command staff, which has traditionally taken a dim view of officers speaking freely to the press.

Howard Police Chief James N. Robey was reported to be on vacation last week and could not be reached for comment. Robey's second-in-command, Maj. Wayne Livesay, is also reportedly out of town and could not be reached.

Robey has said officers are leaving the department for a variety of reasons, including retirements, resignations and other job offers.

He contends that fewer than half of the 26 officers who have left the department since June 14, 1996, did so to join other departments.

In an interview Sept. 3, Robey said he knew of only eight more officers who have applied for other law enforcement jobs: two to Anne Arundel County, four to Prince George's County, one to the FBI and another to the Maryland State Police.

But the police union and officers say the number of those leaving is much higher than Robey reports.

Paparazzo said 15 more officers are looking to move to other police departments by the end of the year, and Heyn asserts that 16 to 20 officers may leave Howard within the next six months.

Robey has said that while the starting salary for officers in Howard County may not be the highest in the area, it is squarely in the middle of the scale.

Howard County pays $26,532, more than Baltimore ($26,388) and Baltimore County ($25,880), but less than Anne Arundel ($26,740), Prince George's ($28,564), state police ($28,734) and Montgomery County ($29,191).

Prince George's, Baltimore and Baltimore County have 20-year retirement benefits.

Robey has said the department is able to maintain the number of officers on the street by paying overtime and moving officers from one task to another.

But at least one officer said the public has a right to be concerned.

"The staffing shortages certainly aren't doing people any good," the officer said. "For one thing, we're killing [the department] in overtime because we're so short-staffed."

The ones who are leaving, the officer said, are the young, educated, motivated people who know that they'll be better rewarded in other departments. Howard cannot hope to be competitive with other counties, he said.

Another officer contends that there's nothing to attract new police recruits or officers who would like to make a lateral move from another jurisdiction to Howard.

"I couldn't have imagined four or five years ago that anyone here would be going to Baltimore County to be a police officer," the officer said.

"Now, I can't imagine why anyone would want to come here."

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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