Tuesday, June 18, 2002

Chiefs want
better cop pay

The 4 county police chiefs
say they are losing ground in
the battle to find and keep officers

By Nelson Daranciang

The state's four county police chiefs say their problem in recruiting and retaining officers is the worst it has even been.

Just a year ago, they felt they had the problem under control. But all that changed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Now the chiefs have joined forces in a public campaign to win support for higher police salaries.

"This is the springboard to get just compensation for our officers," said Honolulu Police Chief Lee Donohue.

Police say the vacancies are large. Honolulu has 264 officer vacancies and 38 for dispatchers; Kauai has 149 officer vacancies and 20 for dispatchers; Maui has 22 officer vacancies and 40 for dispatchers; and the Big Island has nine officer vacancies and six for dispatchers.

The contract between the police union -- the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers -- and the four county police departments expires next summer, and negotiations for a new contract are expected to begin in a few months.

The police chiefs said they will speak to anyone willing to listen. Following a presentation for the news media yesterday, the chiefs did another one for officials of Hawaiian Electric Co.

Kauai Police Chief George Freitas Jr. said he is losing an officer who is headed to Tennessee to take a federal security job that pays $1,000 more per month.

"I need him. I want to keep him, and I don't know how to do that," Freitas said.

The officer attributes pay as one of the reasons for moving.

"It's too bad the cops here make such crappy pay," said Tom Metcalfe, a five-year veteran of the Kauai Police Department.

The chiefs said they were already competing for qualified officers with mainland police departments before Sept. 11. Now with the emphasis on homeland security, all police departments nationwide are not only competing with each other, they are also competing with federal agencies like the Transportation Security Administration and the FBI.

The Web site lists 16 federal, state and municipal law enforcement agencies looking for applicants.

In the last four months, Hawaii County Police Chief James Correa said some of his officers left to become air marshals.

Correa said Big Island police officers are retiring early to take federal jobs, leaving him with a younger police force.

The chiefs said there is no shortage of applicants.

But with less than four percent of HPD applicants making it all the way through screening and training to become officers, the police department tries to get 50 applicants to fill one vacancy.

The starting pay for police officers statewide is $31,812.

Since 1998, HPD has lost 82 veteran officers to police departments in Nevada, Oregon and Washington that pay higher salaries. Nine have returned.

"Federal Way (Washington state) is the latest police department to find the mother lode here," Donohue said.

HPD is the largest county police department in the state and, at 13 percent, has the highest percentage of vacant uniformed officer positions.

Kauai has the second-highest vacancy rate at 11 percent.

"An agency my size, we're in good shape without five-six, six-seven or so. But 16, that's frightening. Too many of my officers are not having enough time with their families to do quality things. They're serving the community," Freitas said.

Maui Police Chief Thomas Phillips said: "The last three years, we've struggled through probably our most severe shortages. One of the reasons were here together today is that each of us foresees that getting worse."

At this time last year, the police chiefs believed they were making headway in reducing the shortage of officers in their respective departments.

On May 31, 2001, HPD had 211 recruits in training for 252 vacant uniformed officer positions and reduced the number of training classes per year to three from four.

Exactly one year later, the department has 183 recruits in training for 264 vacancies and plans to go back to four classes per year, said Maj. Dave Kajihiro, HPD Human Resources Division.

The situation is similar for police dispatchers.

Compounding the situation is that police departments are also having to devote additional resources for anti-terrorist security.

With more agencies tapping into the same pool of candidates, the chiefs are hoping to attract applicants who would not have considered a career in law enforcement.

Other ideas include education, physical fitness and foreign language bonuses, tuition benefits and retirement after 25 years of service for police radio dispatchers.

E-mail to City Desk


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