Washington area police departments face possible exodus of experienced officers

By Matt Zapotosky
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Prince George's County police held a news conference at the beginning of the year to announce some good news. The overall crime rate was at its lowest since the Gerald R. Ford presidency. Officer-involved shootings were cut in half. The homicide closure rate stood at an impressive 79 percent.

But police did not mention one statistic that threatens all those gains: The department is facing a possible exodus of its most experienced officers.

From fiscal 2009 through fiscal 2010, 243 Prince George's police officers reached 20 years of service, making them eligible to retire and immediately start receiving full benefits. That means that more than 16 percent of the force has the option to walk away from the job and receive -- at a minimum -- 60 percent of their highest two-year salary, plus health care, for life.

It's a major concern of union officials and top police commanders, who fear that the same lucrative retirement package that lures officers to the department might entice them to leave. After 20 years, a police union official said, there is "very little in the way of incentive" for anyone to stay. Although officers are eligible to receive an additional 2.5 percent of their salary for each year they stay beyond 20 -- maxing out at 85 percent -- many find it more lucrative to just get another job, authorities said.

"This is definitely a unique situation, but it's one that the citizens are going to have to deal with, because at some point, they're going to see a decrease in service," said Vince Canales, president of the county's Fraternal Order of Police branch. "It poses a huge problem."

Even if just 50 or 100 officers left suddenly, Canales said, the impact would be significant. The force, officials said, has 1,481 officers, although 1,786 positions are authorized.

A hiring rush in 1989 and 1990 is largely responsible for the large number of retirement-eligible officers this year and last. In later years, hiring slowed down. In fiscal 2011, for example, 34 officers will reach 20 years of service and be eligible to retire. In 2012, three will.

The problem appears to be unique to Prince George's. The Fairfax County police force, which is similarly staffed with 1,346 officers, has 126 eligible to retire, officials said. The Montgomery County police, which has about 1,200 officers, has 125 eligible to retire, according to the county's human resources director. Both jurisdictions allow for full retirement after 25 years, five more than in Prince George's, and offer slightly different packages, officials said.

D.C. police, with a force of about 4,000, will have 229 officers eligible to retire in fiscal 2011, officials said. But the District also had a hiring push in the late 1980s and early '90s, said Kris Baumann, head of the D.C. police union. Officers hired during that period don't receive full retirement benefits until they have reached 25 years of service. In 2014 and 2015, Baumann said, nearly 900 officers will become eligible to retire, and managers seem to be ignoring that as a potential problem.

"When they become retirement eligible, it's just going to be a huge exodus, and I don't think we are prepared in any way shape or form for that," Baumann said.

D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier said that because officers who joined the force before 1997 need to be 50 years old before they are eligible to retire, "the anticipated retirements from the 1989-1990 hiring campaign will be more spread out than just a straight calculation of 25 years after hire." She said that attrition has been low under her watch and that commanders "track our staffing trends very closely, so it is also incorrect to say that we are unaware of, or not paying attention to, future staffing needs."

Prince George's Police Chief Roberto Hylton said the number of officers in his department eligible to retire is a "very significant concern" because of those officers' experience.

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