Friday, May 23, 2008

Prince George’s struggles to retain police

Many of the county’s experienced officers are nearing retirement

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Nearly a quarter of the Prince George’s County’s police force could retire in three years, officials warned at a recent budget session.

‘‘It’s trying to overcome attrition. That’s our challenge,” Police Chief Melvin C. High told a County Council committee on May 5.

According to budget officials, 136 officers — 8 percent of the approximately 1,700-member force — became eligible for retirement this year. In 2011, that number will increase to 414 officers, just more than 24 percent of the force.

The retirement challenge extends beyond the police department. According to budget reports for the county’s human resources department, about 30 percent of the county’s 6,428-person work force — nearly 2,000 people — will be able to retire by Jan. 1, 2010.

In the county police department, many potential retirees are experienced investigators who served as street officers and have spent years tracking down suspects in homicide, rape, robbery and other cases, High said.

‘‘We want them to stay so they can teach,” High said. ‘‘We need to look at those key critical places where experience is an issue.”

National experts have expressed similar concerns, warning that the high number of departures — an estimated 550,000 federal employees are expected to retire over the next five years — could cause serious problems.

‘‘Just by the nature of these jobs, your institutional knowledge is going out the door,” said John Palguta, a policy expert with the Partnership for Public Service, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that has advocated for better preparation for the expected retirements on the federal level.

‘‘You can’t just hire someone off the street,” he said. ‘‘It’s not about filling these jobs with warm bodies. The work of government is too important to not hold out for the best people for the job.”

The retirement wave comes in part from the high number of baby boomers nearing retirement, Palguta said.

County human resources officials launched a new initiative last year designed to track potential management gaps and set up mentorships to ease transitions.

‘‘For every manager, we want to have at least two people who can take over for them,” Donald Bridgeman, county director of human resources, said at an April 28 budget hearing.

A county spokeswoman said the new effort should help avoid problems.

‘‘No department has been uniquely impacted,” Christy Lipscomb, spokeswoman for County Executive Jack B. Johnson, said in a prepared statement. ‘‘There will be no interruption in levels of service.”

High said the department is working on trying to get some retirees to stay and encouraging others to pass on their knowledge before they go. He said the county may consider paying bonuses to some retirement-eligible officers who agree to stay on the force.

High warned that even though the county has been pushing to hire new police officers to expand its force, it still has trouble keeping up with the number of those retiring.

According to budget reports, about eight officers per month left the department in the current fiscal year.

Though some were new recruits who decided police work wasn’t for them, the majority of the losses of sworn officers were from retirement.

‘‘We’re still losing people at the other end,” said County Councilman Eric Olson (D-Dist. 3) of College Park.

Even though recruitment numbers are up, police turned down nearly 73 percent of people who applied to be police officers because they didn’t meet minimum requirements for the job.

County police can begin collecting their pensions after 20 years on the job. Under county policy, a police officer’s recommended retirement age is 55. Civilian employees generally can retire on their pension after 30 years of service. Their retirement age is 62.