Police officers make direct appeal to City Council

Police officers make direct appeal to City Council
November 25
00:00 2015
Photos by Todd Luck Cops line the walls at the standing room only city council meeting last week.

By Todd Luck

The Chronicle

Officers with the Winston-Salem Police Department filled the room during the City Council meeting on Nov. 16 to bring attention to the effect relatively low pay is having on officer retention.

Dozens of uniformed officers stood along the sides of the City Council chamber as other WSPD officers, employees and supporters filled many of the seats in the standing room only meeting. Lt. Danny Watts and Corp. Jamison Keltner both spoke during the monthly public comment period about police pay.

The city staff has been looking into both police and fire department pay for the past six weeks. The findings will be presented to the Public Safety Committee in its Dec. 14 meeting. City staff is also looking into the possibility of raising the city’s minimum wage to $15 over a number of years.

Watts heads WSPD’s recruiting unit. He’s been with the unit for 14 years, recruiting more than 500 officers. He said that it’s becoming harder to keep experienced officers. During his remarks, he said WSPD is the lowest paid police department in a major city in the state and pays less than many smaller departments including the Kernersville Police Department, which WSPD has lost five officers to in the last few years. The department has lost 75 experienced officers to other departments since 2012.

“We’re losing officers to other police departments at an alarming rate,” Watts told the City Council.

He continued, saying WSPD is having to replace veterans with inexperienced officers. Studies have shown that makes them more likely to be involved in an excessive use of force complaint or a traffic accident. He said the department is currently using overtime to make sure adequate staffing levels are met.

City Manager Lee Garrity told the council that the initial findings in the report being prepared for the Public Safety Committee found firefighters and police pay is about 10 percent below other Triad cities and counties.

“We’re behind the Triad,” he said. “We’re behind Kernersville, High Point, Greensboro, Forsyth County, Gullfued. All of them.”

Watts told The Chronicle that having lower pay compared to other police departments has made recruiting qualified candidates more challenging. He brought his concern to Chief Barry Rountree who has been working with the city to address the issue. Rountree himself was present at the meeting, showing his support for his officers.

Watts said that some in the WSPD are working as off-duty officers, providing security for events or local businesses in order to support their family.

“I can tell you that the large majority are out there because they need the money,” said Watts on officers who work security detail. “Because they have families at home and they’re just not making enough money here to support their family, to get the basic needs met a lot of times.”

David Pollard, president of the Winston-Salem Professional Fire Fighters Association, said the Winston-Salem Fire Department experiences similar issues with low pay and firefighters leaving for other fire departments or other professions that pay more. He said that’s one of the factors, along with work-related injuries common to the profession, that’s causing the department to use overtime to make up for being short staffed. He said replacing a firefighter takes months since they have to go through training. He said it was very common for firefighters to take part-time jobs at other fire departments or other side jobs to make ends meet.

“You have no choice but to work a side job if you want to put food on the table or a roof over your head,” said Pollard, who’s been a firefighter for 20 years. “Nobody’s going to make it on a firefighter’s salary.”

City Council Member James Taylor, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said that the council has been aware of the problem. The police and fire have been receiving small raises over the past three years, but it hasn’t been enough to keep pace with other departments. He said officers are being trained by the WSPD or WSFD and then being recruited by other departments elsewhere in the state.

“What we’re becoming is a training ground for police women and men and fire men and women, and what we’re doing is training them and they’re taking the training to other cities,” said Taylor.

Taylor, and the other city council members said it was an issue they were taking seriously and they will be looking for ways to act on in the next budget.

Pay below what other cities offer is not a situation unique to public safety officers. According to City Human Resources Director Carmen Caruth, a 2014 analysis found that 80 percent of positions in the city paid less than similar jobs in other markets in the state. The city has an overall turnover rate of about 9 percent for employees leaving for any reason, which includes taking another job, retirement and termination.

Taylor successfully pushed for the city’s minimum wage to be raised to $10.10 last year. He said he didn’t object to a higher minimum wage, but didn’t want it to result in services being cut or taxes being raised.

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