Officers seek overhaul of salary system

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Officers seek overhaul of salary system
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By Derrick Perkins (File photo)

City police officers have petitioned Alexandria’s top elected officials for pay raises this year, warning of dire consequences unless changes are made.

Citing sinking morale and a worsening brain drain, leaders of local police organizations and unions asked city councilors to increase their pay to levels on par with neighboring jurisdictions. Capt. Jamie Bartlett led the charge during Saturday’s public hearing as uniformed officers packed pews inside city council chambers.

“Our pay system is — and has been for years — completely and utterly broken,” he said. “We’re paid considerably less than our peers in other jurisdictions at all ranks and all levels of service.”

On average, a captain in Alexandria makes roughly 5 percent less than a colleague of the same rank in a neighboring law enforcement agency, Bartlett contended, while a lieutenant makes 10 percent less and a deputy chief 11 percent less. Using himself as an example, Bartlett said a captain makes about $14,000 more in Arlington County.

The disparity means many officers cannot afford to live in the city, he said. As of 2011, the median income of the Washington metropolitan area was about $106,000, up from $82,000 in 2000, according to figures compiled by City Hall. In that same period, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment jumped from $1,034 to $1,765 while the average assessed value of residential property spiked to $449,441, up from $191,341.

Bartlett hinted the problem might lead to a situation similar to the one that unfolded in Ferguson, Mo., earlier this year. Protests, riots and looting erupted in the St. Louis suburb after a member of the largely white police department shot and killed an unarmed black man.

Experts and pundits have argued that the divide between local police and the predominantly black community played a major role in the weeks of unrest.

“In a time when retention, particularly [in regards to] minorities, is in the news almost daily, particularly in light of the tragic events in Ferguson, Mo., as well as around the nation, we are unable to attract and retain those minorities and other qualified officers,” Bartlett said.

If pay continued to lag behind other jurisdictions, Alexandria would see a drop in the quality of the men and women who make up the department, he warned.

That will lead to lawsuits — and settlements, he said.

“You can choose to invest your money upfront, by paying your officers well, or pay it on the back end,” Bartlett argued.

More immediately, Lt. Ed Milner pointed out many younger officers were fleeing the department. Of the 92 recruits trained by the city since 2012 at a cost of about $10.1 million, 24 have left for other departments, he said.

“I’m asking you to invest in the city’s future by investing in its police force,” he said, also citing flagging morale in the department.

Though City Manager Rashad Young defended his office’s work to improve the police department’s salary woes since he took the reins, he admitted many problems remain. A task force dedicated to ironing out problems will keep working, he said.

“As the work group has continued, they’ve identified other problems in pay that I think we all acknowledge took decades to create and won’t be fixed in three years, but we’ve had a process to go through and prioritize what those issues are and apply funding to them as we could,” Young said.

While Mayor Bill Euille expressed his support for the police department, he did not commit to pay raises in the coming budget cycle. Still, he said the city council would take their concerns seriously as they began crafting the budget.

“We’re going to do what we can to work hard to address this issue,” Euille said, noting he only recently learned of the level of concern within the department. “Alexandria certainly will stand tall to do whatever we can do within the financial means.”

City Councilor Del Pepper took a stronger stance.

“You’ve got our attention,” she said, lamenting the loss of police officers to other jurisdictions. “We’ve heard you.”

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