Attrition Statistics Don't Tell Whole Story in Police Pay Dispute

Times Staff Writer

It was an emotional day at City Hall, one that capped six weeks of increasing tension between city management and the feisty Police Officers Assn.

As more than 150 angry officers crowded the City Council chambers, Sgt. Anne O'Dell reeled off some impressive statistics to show why her colleagues needed a better raise.

"The joke that goes around our department is that the San Diego Police Department is a good training ground" for other Southern California departments, she said during the council's May 28 hearing on salaries for the next fiscal year.

Already, the attrition rate for officers this year had risen to 10 a month--120 a year--O'Dell said.

Further, she warned, "there are 36 (San Diego officers) on a list ready to lateral to the San Diego Sheriff's Department," because deputy sheriffs get better pay and benefits than San Diego police.

Although O'Dell failed to persuade the council to give officers the two-step raise--5% in July, another 5% next January--they wanted, her comments were among the most dramatic.

Dramatic, but possibly misleading, according to city and Sheriff's Department figures.

O'Dell and leaders of the POA, which represents 1,380 officers, have been claiming that droves of experienced police officers are leaving--or are about to leave--the San Diego force because the pay is significantly lower than at other major California police agencies in Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco, Long Beach, Oakland and Sacramento.

(In San Diego County, deputy sheriffs were paid $27,685 during fiscal 1985, compared to a typical San Diego police officer's salary of $27,435.)

But in recent interviews, some city and law enforcement officials said there is no evidence that large numbers of San Diego officers are calling it quits.

"There's not a mass exodus" of San Diego officers to the Sheriff's Department, said Sheriff's Lt. John Tenwolde, who was surprised to hear of the claim.

In testing during March and May, the Sheriff's Department received not 36 applications from San Diego officers, but two. Of those, "we hired one lateral since May"; the other failed to meet department standards, Tenwolde said.

Further, Jack McGrory, an assistant city manager who handles labor relations, noted that overall attrition among officers is not expected to reach the rate O'Dell cited.

Despite the POA's claims, "we are in the lowest (police department) turnover in the last 10 years," McGrory said.

In contrast to O'Dell's claim that 120 officers will quite the San Diego force this year, McGrory said that by June 30 he expects the city will have lost 70 to 80 officers (5.1% to 6% of the city's police force).

That compares to a loss of 95 officers (7% of the force) in fiscal 1984, 105 (7.8%) in 1983, 137 (10.2%) in 1982, and still larger numbers in the preceding years.

McGrory also noted that officers leave for a variety of reasons other than salary--to retire, attend school, work for the district attorney's office or move to rural areas like Wyoming.

Further, the current turnover rate for police is less than that for municipal employees as a whole, McGrory noted. The rate for city employees exclusive of police is expected to be 8% for the fiscal year ending June 30. When the police attrition rate is added, overall turnover is projected to dip to 7.4%.

POA attorney Chris Ashcraft agreed with McGrory that the rates O'Dell and others have mentioned may be incorrect.

But Ashcraft said POA leaders, in meetings with rank-and-file officers, have sensed the angry mood of officers--a mood that isn't reflected in statistics.

"I don't think we're working from statistics," Ashcraft said. "It's all projection. His (McGrory's) is a mathematical projection. Ours is a more general prophecy of what's going to occur. His is numerical. Ours is based on what we feel from the rank and file of police officers."

Also, Ashcraft said, many of those officers are telling POA leadership at meetings that they have recently submitted resumes to other police agencies.

The attrition question is a significant one because POA leaders suggest that the number of officers who have left or are thinking of leaving the department indicates widespread dissatisfaction with the wage and benefits package ratified May 28 by the City Council.

But McGrory and others say this year's wage-benefits package for police is a good one--at least in the San Diego labor market. McGrory said the package appears to be accepted by most officers, even if the POA leadership doesn't think so.

"Our longstanding policy is to be competitive within our labor market--not Los Angeles," McGrory said. "With this salary increase, we will be the top-paying agency in the county," exceeding even that of the Sheriff's Department. (The county has yet to approve a fiscal 1985-86 pay scale for deputy sheriffs, so McGrory's comparison is with the 1984-85 figure.)

Under the controversial pay package approved for the 1985-86 fiscal year, the City Council gave final approval to a 5.5% raise for police--a higher raise than it gave to any other employee group.

It also increased the city's contribution to the police retirement plan to 6.5% from 6%, gave additional pay to motorcycle officers, added $150 a year to each officer's health benefits, and--cognizant of the three officers killed on the job in the last nine months--reinstated full disability insurance, which was cut from the pension program in 1981.

Although the council's salary action is final, the POA still wants an amount equal to the two-step raise it sought in negotiations. In the bargaining, it sought a 5% raise for police officers on July 1 and another 5% raise Jan. 1, arguing that San Diego police salaries are 9% to 30% below those in other major California cities.

POA leaders say they still want that two-step raise, either through reserves discovered during the current round of budget hearings or through other action--possibly including placing an initiative on next June's ballot for parity pay, or even some sort of job action, including a strike.

They argue that even though statistics don't bear this out yet, there is increasingly the possibility that large numbers of police officers will quit.

Ashcraft and POA President Ty Reid said they are convinced that without additional pay, large numbers of officers will quit, just as they did in another period of major discontent, from 1978 to 1980. During that time there was a small, short-lived outbreak of "blue flu" that was not sanctioned by the POA.

More significantly, 537 officers left the force during those three years, according to figures supplied by McGrory. (The POA had recently claimed that 724 officers left in that time.) That three-year turnover was almost half of what was then a 1,200-officer force.

The philosophy under then-Mayor Pete Wilson was one of "maintaining very low benefits and wages," Ashcraft said. A typical patrol officer then earned only $19,428 a year, compared to $27,435 in fiscal 1985.

The same short-sighted philosophy prevails now and it will take its toll, Ashcraft said.

"Our position is that, from a moral and any kind of appropriate salary administration concept, cops should be paid in parity with the rest of the state," Ashcraft said. "They're saying 'we can get away with it because they are not leaving.' . . .

"In the recent past, that same approach did lead to heavy-duty attrition and it's going to do it again."

Still, he said, McGrory's "guess is as good as mine. But you've got a big problem if the POA guess is true."

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