Police Today, Gone Tomorrow
"Almost half the department can leave in the next five years."
From the April, 2017 issue
That's one of the issues on the agenda for AAPD chief Jim Baird. Police officers qualify for a full pension after twenty-five years of service, and a lot of AAPD officers are at or near that mark.
"Twenty-five years ago was the twenty-five-year mark from another big hiring in the Seventies," Baird explains. "In addition, that was when all the Bill Clinton cop grants were coming out, so everybody was adding staff as well as replacing the people walking out the door. Now we're having the perfect storm where everybody is eligible to leave at the same time."
The potential for mass retirements was front and center at the end of 2016, when the lame-duck state legislature flirted with a law that would have lowered pensions by excluding overtime pay when the amount is calculated. While it was under consideration, "we had fifteen, sixteen people file for retirement," Baird says. "And we said, 'Look, if nothing happens in lame duck, we'll let you pull your papers.' "
Nothing did happen, and "thank goodness all but a few of them wound up pulling their papers," says Baird. "It would have crippled us to have that many walking out the door all at the same time!"
Baird is the third chief to occupy the corner office in the Justice Center with its commanding view of downtown. The first was Barnett Jones, who kept his blinds drawn for security. The second was John Seto, who opened the shades.
Baird, a tall man with the manner of a friendly dentist, is also keeping the blinds open. But unlike previous chiefs who kept their desktops clear, Baird's is covered with neatly arranged papers. Two computers display spreadsheets, and a huge whiteboard on one wall lists all the AAPD's sworn officers.
"We have 122 right now," says Baird in a cheerful tenor. "That's our authorized strength." But one of the 122 has already filed to retire, and "I anticipate probably five total sworn officers will go before
the end of this fiscal year" in June.
They're the leading edge of what threatens to be a tidal wave. Police pensions are 2.75 percent of salary times the numbers of years served, so at twenty-five years, retiring officers can collect 69 percent of their final pay. "We don't believe they'll all leave when they're eligible," Baird says, "but even if a certain portion of them does, it's going to be tricky."
How tricky? "If you want to retire you have to give thirty days' notice," the chief replies. "But for us to bring on a new employee, it can be another nine months before they're actually a fully functioning independent officer."
That's why he has the whiteboard. "I can't wrap my head around this looking at this on paper," he admits with a smile. "I need to be able to move things like a chessboard."
Seven officers are currently assigned to traffic enforcement--a number Baird sees holding steady, despite the continued public outcry over pedestrian safety.
"The pros [of putting more cops on traffic enforcement] are community perception: being able to say that we're doing it," says Baird candidly. "However, it's not always the best way to deploy the resources. Think of a traffic officer as a screwdriver, but a patrol officer is more of a multipurpose tool. [They] can do traffic enforcement but other things as well.
"We have sixty-five people assigned to road patrol as officers," the chief says, glancing at the whiteboard. "Five are new and in the training program, [and] we also have five that are [providing] training so it's actually like ten people are at reduced capacity. Every call takes longer [because] there's much more teaching involved. So I think road patrol is where the bodies need to be now."
The other hot topic is whether to create a citizen oversight commission--an issue that surfaced after an officer fatally shot a woman wielding a knife two years ago. After the shooting, Baird says, the Human Rights Commission recommended that "the department undergo an audit by an external group"--and also "some kind of citizens' involvement in an advisory role."
The chief is good with that. "I don't see any cons if it's crafted and designed the right way. The pros are we'll increase the level of transparency with the citizens. We're really bad at times at explaining why we do what we do, and to have a group that can be an intermediary, I don't see that as a negative thing."
Council authorized $200,000 for an outside audit of the department in February. "There's not going to be any kind of smoking gun," Baird predicts. "It will offer us a few ways we can improve our operation. Especially with the last two chiefs both being internal, a fresh set of eyes is a good thing."
Sixty-four officers nationwide were killed by gunfire last year, up from forty-one the year before. After a sniper killed five officers in Dallas in July, "we put in the squad cars a couple of vests that can actually stop a rifle round," Baird says. "If you need it, you can just throw it on."
Despite that, Baird says, "the officers understand that this is an inherently safe job." And department morale is "pretty good," in the chief's opinion. "We went through a series of years, six or seven years, where we didn't do any hiring and nobody got promoted because it was during our trimming where we were reduced in size through attrition. Since 2012 we've hired thirty or forty people. There's fresh blood from fresh ideas."
Baird himself joined the department in 1993 as part of the '90s hiring spree, and he'll have twenty-five years in in 2018. His predecessor retired after serving twenty-five years. Has he considered it?
The chief laughs. "No, not right now! I don't feel the need to leave when I'm eligible. I have four kids. My second will be graduating from high school in 2018, four or five months after I'm eligible. I certainly couldn't see me leaving before that."
[Originally published in April, 2017.]
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