Within a few weeks, congressional committees will take the first steps toward redefining the pay and benefits provided federal law enforcement officers.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the renewed focus on border security have raised broad policy concerns about federal law enforcement. Does the government need more officers? Does it pay enough to recruit and retain the best, especially in high-cost cities? Are differences in pay and retirement rules affecting morale and contributing to turnover?
As the Office of Personnel Management said in a 2004 report, "The world today is a very different and much more complex place, and the physical requirements in the field of law enforcement are much more varied and demanding, particularly in light of the 9/11 terrorist attacks."
Some federal police forces have expanded to include teams trained in special weapons, in bomb detection and in airborne surveillance. FBI agents are being asked to focus on intelligence and counterterrorism rather than traditional law enforcement, and Customs and Border Protection officers are under pressure to stop any weapons of mass destruction at border crossings.
The staffs of Reps. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) and Jon Porter (R-Nev.) and Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) are working on a plan to revamp law enforcement compensation. The three chair congressional panels that oversee the federal workplace.
The staffs plan to produce an "options paper" that will be made public to "generate discussion that will help us draft comprehensive classification, compensation and benefits reform for federal law enforcement officers," said Marcie Ridgway, a spokeswoman for Voinovich.
Drew Crockett, a spokesman for Davis, said any changes will be "more suited to law enforcement officer needs in a post-9/11 world. It is our hope to have something introduced before the end of the year."
The basic pay and benefits rules for the government's 106,000 law enforcement officers have remained essentially the same since the late 1940s, although some have been modified. Congress has sweetened retirement benefits for some uniformed officers but not others. Court rulings have created what OPM calls "unwarranted differences" in retirement benefits.
One key rule -- mandatory retirement at age 57 -- helps maintain a physically vigorous workforce but also steers experienced officers into retirement at a relatively early age.
Recruitment and retention, and their link to pay scales and benefits, are not clear-cut, either.
Last year's OPM study found "high quit rates" among officers during their first two to four years on the job. Some officers leave because they cannot meet training requirements or find they are not well-suited to the dangers and risks inherent in law enforcement.
But OPM added, "It may also be the case that more flexibility in setting starting [pay] rates is needed to make federal agencies more competitive in specific local labor markets and to attract higher-quality employees who have a greater commitment."
Some recent research may support that concern. Last month, the Congressional Budget Office found that federal law enforcement salaries were below those paid by state and local enforcement agencies in several metropolitan areas.
On average, however, federal officers earned 4 percent more than their state and local counterparts. The CBO said the higher average pay could be caused by differences in employment practices. Federal agencies have higher educational requirements and employ a larger proportion of detectives and investigators than state and local governments.
Still, in big cities the CBO found significant variations in pay.
In Washington, federal officers make about 6 percent more than non-federal officers. In Atlanta, Dallas and Houston, federal pay was more than 40 percent higher than pay for comparable state and local detectives and investigators.
But in Los Angeles and New York, federal officers were paid about 11 percent less, and in San Diego about 8 percent less, than local and state officers in those cities. In Philadelphia, federal investigators were paid about 14 percent less than their non-federal counterparts.
Groups representing officers, meanwhile, are eager to see how the Davis-Porter-Voinovich policy paper might change the rules.
"I anxiously await it," said Richard Zehme, president of the Federal Criminal Investigators Association.