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Washington area police departments face possible exodus of experienced officers

By Matt Zapotosky
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2010; B01

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.

"When I actually was appointed to the position, that was one of the first things I began looking at -- that we should have a retention plan in place to try to keep a lot of our experience here in the police department," he said. "We are fighting against other industries and other organizations that are recruiting, actively recruiting our personnel. . . . This required maybe a five- to seven-year plan that we should have had in place."

Departures in the Prince George's department have been steady, although the numbers have been short of a doomsday scenario, and many officers have stayed beyond 20 years. In fiscal 2009, 94 officers retired; in fiscal 2010, 82 did. As of July 16, that left 266 officers who had 20 years or more service, authorities said.

Several high-ranking commanders who have either left recently or are with the department said that Hylton is the reason many are leaving. The chief, they say, is autocratic and sometimes questions the integrity of his commanders.

Hylton acknowledged that morale in the department is a "mixed bag," but he attributed any decline to a faltering economy and his aggressive efforts to root out corruption or tweak policies. Those efforts, he said, are sometimes unpopular.

"We continuously look at our personnel to make sure they're complying with the rules and procedures and they're following the values of this organization," he said. "And those who do not, they have to be purged."

Hylton said he is constantly thinking about ways, financial and otherwise, to retain officers. Creating a place where people continuously build new skill sets so they enjoy coming to work is crucial, he said.

"That's why you keep hearing me saying policing from the heart and humanizing the police department," he said. "When you have a very good working environment, you have a very good product. . . . I think that contributes to retention because you actually feel that you're accomplishing your goal that the organization is all about."

Officials say they're also aggressively recruiting to fill the gaps left by retirements. Last year, nearly 2,500 applicants tested to be Prince George's police officers, and officials expect that number to be even higher this year, said Capt. George Nader, assistant commander of police personnel. Thirty-eight Prince George's officers graduated from the academy in April, and 71 are in the current class. Police have plans to enroll about 75 more cadets this year, authorities said. An entry-level officer makes about $46,000 a year.

"The big hiring surge that happened back in the '80s, these people are now coming up on their 20 and 25 years. Most of them are 45 years [old] and younger, so yeah, it is beneficial to them to retire and take that second career," Nader said. "Of course, you never want to lose your experience, but we have a strong training program that brings these other guys up."

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