Benefits leave officers wanting

Originally published in The (Columbus, Ind.) Republic, Dec. 2, 2001

By Andy Proffet

Columbus Police Chief Matt McCord believes his department can be the best in the state for a city this size.

But reaching that level — and surpassing it — will come with a cost.

CPD officers are among the lowest paid in the state for a city this size.

That’s kept the department understaffed for some time.

“We’ve got about six openings right now,” McCord said.

He said many officers work part-time jobs to supplement their income.

“The average officer has to do something else to make ends meet,” McCord said.

City police officers work extra hours as mall and high school security guards or in construction, and some own their own businesses or rental property.

Another issue is the longevity pay officers receive.

The pay hasn’t changed since it was implemented in 1979.

“That’s one of the benefits where we’re sorely lacking,” McCord said.

He said the difference between a first-year officer and a 20-year veteran is just $4,050.

“I’ve been here too long to leave,” said 23-year CPD veteran Lt. Jim Lowry. “But if I was wanting to take care of my family the way I want to, and to be able to take care of myself the way I want to, I’d look at something that pays better.”

McCord acknowledged that in 1999, in order to receive the funds to hire five new officers, he cut an increase in longevity pay from the budget he presented to the city council.

“It was the right call at the time,” he said.

“The mayor and the city council have been very supportive of the department,” McCord said. “This is not an issue where we are at odds with them.”

Sgt. Matt Myers, public information officer for CPD, agreed.

“But these are issues we have to address down the road in order to keep this department as professional as it is now,” he said.

“I’ll put this department against any in the state in terms of the professionalism and service we provide,” Myers said.

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to do that 10 years from now.”

Police officers agree that, as much as they love their jobs, money is a factor on whether they’ll make a career at CPD.

“Being one of the new guys, the pay’s great for me,” said Patrolman Thomas Foust, who’s in his first year at the department. “But I wouldn’t be able to afford a house or a car if my wife didn’t work.”

“There’s no incentive to stay,” said Patrolman Todd Harry.

“I’ve been here 3½ years, and it may be another five or six years before I get a chance at a promotion.

“So I’m going to be making the same pay until then,” Harry said.

An undercover narcotics officer with seven years at CPD said he’s looked at other police departments and has thought about leaving for better pay.

“That’s a shame,” Myers said. “He’s a damn good officer, and I’d hate to see him go.

“But I couldn’t blame him if he did leave.”

“There’s a real wall at 10 years (when officers begin to leave the department),” McCord said. “It’s not just recruiting, it’s retention.”

“When we get somebody, we want them to make a career here,” Myers said. “When they’re here for three or four years, then leave, you’re not getting much return on the investment you put in them.

“If the community wants the best police department in the state — and I think they do — we’re eventually going to have to pay these guys more.”

Mayor Fred Armstrong, a former Columbus Police officer, agrees.

“Are they underpaid? Absolutely,” Armstrong said. “But you’ve got to look at the budget.

“The policemen will think they need more money than the firemen, the firemen will think they need more than the policemen, the sanitation workers will think they need more money, and so on.”

Armstrong would like to see a unified front by city police and firefighters.

“I want them to present a plan that’s reasonable, cost-effective for the community, and something that we can all support.”

“We know if the mayor and city council had the money, they’d give it to us,” Myers said. “We know times are bad.

“And we know this won’t happen right now. But these are things we’re shooting for, trying to help the officers who will follow us.

“This is something everybody’s going to have to look at down the road,” he said.