January 14, 2002
By AL BAKER and KEVIN FLYNN
n an effort to stem the flow of officers leaving the New York Police Department, Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly is preparing to ask the Legislature to allow officers some retirement benefits while still on the job.
Officials are alarmed that despite adulation for the police after Sept. 11, an exodus continues in part because of low pay, attractive job opportunities in the private sector and a pension mechanism that is making retirement irresistible because of vast amounts of overtime logged in recent months.
Twice as many police officers retired in 2001 as in 2000, police officials said. Their reasons varied, but the most significant seem to be a growing dissatisfaction with salary levels. The annual base salary for a beginning officer in the city is $31,305, which lags behind such places as Suffolk County and Los Angeles by roughly $10,000.
Mr. Kelly's proposals, which come two weeks into his second tour as New York's police commissioner, underscore how seriously he considers the need to slow attrition within the department, an issue that has been vexing city officials for much of the past two years.
"I need to get a better sense of what works and what doesn't work, what do we go forward with," Mr. Kelly said.
Officials in Albany said they were happy to keep an open mind about any solutions Mr. Kelly might offer.
In an interview, Mr. Kelly said he was still refining his proposals, given what he is learning in meeting with officers, union leaders and commanders. He outlined several options that, he said, he was seriously considering, including allowing officers who have the 20 years of service necessary for retirement to use their highest-earning year as the basis for their pension even if it was not their last year on the force.
Mr. Kelly did not provide cost estimates for his proposals but he acknowledged that they might have potentially limiting budget implications. "There are things I would like to see done that at the end of the day may not be able to be done," he said.
The commissioner also called for quick and decisive support among lawmakers during this session, hopefully within a month. "Ideally, I would like to see something sooner than that," he said.
A spokesman for Gov. George E. Pataki cited the governor's "great respect for Commissioner Kelly," and said, "We look forward to hearing his ideas."
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said through a spokesman that "if the city believes legislation is needed, we would consider it."
Under the city pension system, after 20 years of service, uniformed police officers are entitled to a pension equal to half of their gross earnings, including overtime, in their last year on the force. With tax breaks and a special pension bonus of about $10,000 a year, that can come close to an officer's take-home pay before retirement.
Overtime opportunities increased greatly for police officers in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, and in many cases, veteran officers have seen their paychecks grow by as much as 20 percent. The higher earning would translate into pensions more lucrative than they ever expected, if they retire now.
Mr. Kelly said that the impact of overtime on retirement deepened because of a decision in the last days of the Giuliani administration to pay overtime to captains and above. Traditionally, officers of that rank did not get overtime.
He did not rule out seeking approval for more than one of the several options he is considering. Among these are allowing officers eligible for retirement to begin collecting an annual pension bonus, known as the defined benefit, even if they choose not to retire. A variation on this would allow 20-year veterans to put the pension bonus into an investment-only escrow account that could not be drawn on until retirement. Such an account would be subject to market fluctuation.
Mr. Kelly said he was also studying the feasibility of asking lawmakers to allow officers to put their entire monthly pension benefit into an escrow account while they continue to work past 20 years. Known as the Deferred Retirement Option, or Drop Plan, this would allow officers to collect their pension and their salary. Presumably, they would invest the pension, allowing them to have a nest egg of as much as a half-million dollars or more upon retirement.
One senior police official said that the commissioner has talked of hiring an outside firm to survey the 40,000-member force to find out what incentives might persuade officers not to retire. The consultant would also study retention methods used by other police departments.
For the last few years, a booming economy has drawn officers in droves into higher-paying private-sector jobs in New York and across the country.
In New York, though, the problem has been particularly acute, in part because of the pay scale but also because of a sense among officers that the public did not appreciate them in the aftermath of two particularly painful incidents: the 1999 killing of a West African street peddler, Amadou Diallo, by police officers in the Bronx, and the 1997 torture of a Haitian immigrant, Abner Louima, in a Brooklyn station house.
The departures have been compounded by the difficulties the city has had finding new recruits.
Reaction among union leaders to Mr. Kelly's proposals varied.
"I think all these ideas are decent ideas, but what is happening is it is being done piecemeal," said Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, which represents 29,000 members. "The main problem that has to be fixed is the salary issue. We have to give our members a decent livable wage."
A total of 807 officers, nearly a quarter of the 3,776 who resigned or retired last year, had less than five years on the job, officials said.
Some in the Police Department say many officers leave the force at the minimum age because they cannot afford to pay their bills. These officers fear that any proposal that allows pension funds to be deferred paid out and invested, but not collected until officers retire will not help greatly with retention.
But the head of the union that represents 30,000 law-enforcement officers around the State of Florida said its deferred retirement program has made officers and government officials happy.
"It's win, win, for both sides," said Ernie W. George, the president of the Florida Police Benevolent Association and a police sergeant in West Palm Beach.
Thomas J. Scotto, the president of the union that represents detectives in the New York Police Department, said he favored the proposals Mr. Kelly is considering and has supported such issues for years. "The incentive is, `Don't let them lose it,' " Mr. Scotto said. "Let them stay active. Pay them as they stay active."
Not everyone is convinced that the loss of officers through attrition would have dire consequences. With crime down significantly over the past decade, some believe that New York, which still has among the most police officers per capita of the nation's largest cities, can afford a smaller force, especially given its looming budget problems.
"No one has proven that you need 40,000 cops to sustain the city's low crime rate," said Harvey Robins, who was the director of the mayor's office of operations under Mayor David N. Dinkins.