Police exodus stirring concern

Retirements spike after bonuses cut

By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / February 7, 2010

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Boston police and other departments across the state are grappling with a sharp increase in the number of officers resigning or retiring as the state slashes a generous bonus program that had boosted police paychecks for years.

Last month, when the benefit cuts took effect in Boston, 21 city officers, detectives, and supervisors left or retired. That number is a dramatic increase over previous years - in January 2009, just 6 officers left; between 8 and 10 officers left in each of the previous four years, according to the department.

Police in other communities are reporting a similar pattern, which they are attributing not only to a drop in the take-home pay for officers and police chiefs who have degrees related to law enforcement, but also to concerns about how proposed changes to the state’s pension system might affect the retirement income of police officers.

Retirements are rising as the number of people seeking to become police officers has plunged. In 2007, 11,357 people took the exam required to apply to become a police officer, a huge drop from the 21,625 who took it in 1997.

“It is worrisome,’’ said Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis. “We’re in a tough situation as far as the replacement of these officers. . . . We lose experience - that’s the single biggest issue.’’

In Arlington last June, the department lost eight officers, three of them the highest ranking captains. Police across the state said retirement is now a regular topic of discussion.

“We talk about it almost every single day,’’ said Lieutenant John Silva of the New Bedford Police Department. Officers “are torn between leaving a job they love and sacrificing their retirement.’’

Police chiefs are leaving at a higher rate as well. In 2009, 40 police chiefs retired, up 25 percent from 2008, according to the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association.

The departures could cause a shortage of experienced supervisors and leave communities with fewer seasoned officers to replace them, said A. Wayne Sampson, the association’s executive director.

“In most cases, many of our chiefs have had 10, 15 years of supervisory experience before they get appointed to the chief’s position,’’ he said. “We’re in a situation where we may have people with only two or three years experience stepping up.’’

Police officials attribute the departures to fears about reduction in pension earnings - fears that state officials say are unfounded - and to a reduction in the amount of bonus pay granted to officers who have law enforcement, criminal justice, or law degrees under a state law called the Quinn Bill.

The state this year has cut by 80 percent the amount of money it contributes for the educational bonuses to police officers. The bonuses can add 10 to 25 percent to an officer’s take-home pay. Typically, half of the amount had been paid by the state and half by cities and towns.

Late last month, police received their first paychecks showing the effect of the cuts, which according to the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, will lead to up to $11,000 in yearly salary reductions for some Boston officers. Only state police are exempt from the cuts, because the state is contractually obligated to fund the program.

Davis said several officers told him they retired earlier than they had planned, largely because of the reductions in Quinn Bill earnings and potential changes to the state’s pension plan.

“I think a combination of all the uneasiness of the economy, the Quinn Bill, all of those things play a role in them thinking they should go,’’ Davis said.

Police say the Quinn Bill provides an incentive for officers to become more educated, and as a result, better at their jobs. Many officers relied on the bonus of the Quinn Bill to pay for outstanding student loans, union leaders said.

But critics have questioned the rigor of the academic programs and said the benefit is more about big payouts. A 2001 review by the state Board of Higher Education faulted the then-$100 million program, calling it a “cash cow’’ for colleges that has had no direct impact on the quality of law enforcement since its inception in 1970.

Cyndi Roy, a spokeswoman for Governor Deval Patrick, defended the decision to cut the state’s contribution to the educational bonus pay.

“The current Quinn Bill program is too costly for taxpayers and needs to be reformed,’’ Roy said in a statement. “That is why the administration has proposed a study to determine how we can best provide enhanced educational opportunities for police officers that are affordable in these difficult economic times.’’

Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said the bonus program is not justified in light of the state’s fiscal crisis and the societal expectation that officers should have a higher degree than a high school diploma now that departments have become more professionalized.

But he said that Patrick should have phased in the cuts, which would have given municipalities time to figure out how to cover such an expensive program and officers a chance to prepare for the financial hit.

“There is a lot of confusion and uncertainty. Once the state share has been cut, what is the status of the program?’’ Widmer said. “I think it’s that ambiguity that is accelerating retirement.’’

Retiring police officers are also worried about potential reductions to their retirement pay, police officials say. A proposal by Patrick would increase retirement ages and change the formula for pension calculations, basing it on a public employee’s top five years of earnings rather than the top three. But Patrick administration officials insisted that any changes to the pension system would not affect current employees.

“The changes the governor is seeking in our pension laws will modernize our system, ensuring it is fiscally responsible, fair for taxpayers and employees, and sustainable,’’ Roy said.

Many officers said they do not trust that their retirement plans won’t be affected. Many who have reached the age of 55 and have worked 32 years - the two factors needed to qualify for full retirement benefits - have decided to leave while the current pension system remains in effect and while they are not losing money because of the Quinn Bill cuts.

“If you could leave right now at your top [pay], why would you stay?’’ said Captain Frank Armstrong, president of the Boston Police Superior Officers Federation. “With 9 percent unemployment we realize we’re still very lucky. . . . But people have spent a lot of time and money on getting their degrees. If they’re faced with a position in which they will lose a significant amount of weekly pay and potential retirement pay, there may be a greater incentive for a mass exodus.’’