Police shortage could get worse Morale falling, stress rising, union leader says

July 15, 1998|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

A story in yesterday's Howard County edition of The Sun about the Howard County police misstated Sgt. Kenneth Fleischmann's first name.

The Sun regrets the error.

Howard County police are worried that a nagging understaffing problem could grow worse -- if officers continue to leave for other departments and a handful of veterans retire during the next few months.

Many officers say that public safety isn't jeopardized but that department morale is declining while job-related stress rises.

"This whole summer we're critically short," said Cpl. John Paparazzo, president of the Howard County Police Officers Association. "Guys can't take a day off, can't take leave. We've got to pay [officers] to work overtime, just to staff beats."

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Officials attribute understaffing to officer flight -- 22 officers left Howard County during the past year for other departments, lured by better pay and benefits. Eight have retired. The department is about 30 positions short of its authorized strength of 313.

Paparazzo and other officers say colleagues are considering leaving the force -- rumors that other departments are offering better pay are flying through the ranks -- and several veterans could retire anytime.

Police officials, though, say the situation should improve in December when 18 new officers hit the streets. Officials say another dozen recruits likely will enter the training academy in September.

"This is a hardship on many employees," said Maj. Mark Paterni. "We're being squeezed. We're going to have to readjust our hiring practices to stay ahead of the squeeze."

To attract recruits from other police agencies, officials are offering experienced officers salaries based on their years of service, and not giving them beginners' pay. They hope to have a "lateral" academy class for experienced officers in the next few months.

Union officials say several of the county's 24 geographic police beats have gone unstaffed in the past month; officers are being asked to work more overtime shifts; and a supervisor recently revoked an approved leave for one officer because staffing levels were so low.

Union and department officials are worried about filling vacancies because today's market for police officers is so competitive and the screening process so rigorous. It took 1,000 applicants to get the 18 recruits in the police academy.

"We just can't hire and retain enough people," Paparazzo said.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker said officials and union representatives would meet to work out their differences over pay and benefits.

"We won't be at the top paying" department, Ecker said. "We'll probably be in middle of the pack."

Officers make about $36,000 after working 10 years without promotions and can retire after 20 years with 39.1 percent of their pay. In Prince George's County, where several Howard County officers have gone, officers make almost $42,000 after a decade and retire with 60 percent of their salaries.

Sergeants and lieutenants in Howard say the pay scale slights experienced supervisors -- some newly promoted sergeants make more than their veteran counterparts. The problem arose when the department eliminated two ranks between police officer and sergeant several years ago, and later reinstated them.

The supervisors also say their leave is calculated on eight-hour days, not the 12 that most work.

"Supervisors are the guys who get the job done," said Sgt. John Fleischmann, president of the Howard County Police Supervisors Alliance. "This has a terrible effect on our morale."

Pub Date: 7/15/98

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