Brain Drain in the Police Department
One problem that I want to make sure gets the attention it deserves is the potential fallout from the ongoing changing of the guard at SHPD.
As frequent readers and followers of city politics will know, there is a sea change underway in the city’s public safety departments. Many new recruits are being brought in, and many current people are retiring. The pace at which new people are coming in is frantic, and the ones who are retiring are steadily trickling out.
The city formerly offered something called the Deferred Retirement Option Program, or DROP for short. DROP is not unique to Sterling Heights; it is an employee benefit that is frequently offered by municipalities in many states to public safety workers as a way to enhance their retirement benefits. The way it works is somewhat complex, but the idea is that the worker will elect to participate in the DROP, and will technically “retire” while continuing to work for a defined length of time while their pension remains undisbursed. Supposedly it was a revenue neutral way for the city to get a few more years of work from their most experienced employees, while at the same time allowing those folks to enhance their retirement savings. You’ll need an actuary, a lawyer and an accountant to explain it further; that’s the best I understand it.
The bad thing, in my view, about the DROP is that it forces participants to select a date certain by which they must stop working. That date then somehow becomes cast in stone for all but a very few of the top employees. In Fire Chief Chris Martin’s case, for example, some innovative thinking on the part of the city’s human resources department, enabled him to stay on past his DROP date after being elevated to the Chief’s position.
Well, Chief Martin is a smart guy, and we need him around. But the smart guys in our public safety departments don’t all have “Chief” in their titles. Most of the Police command officers are in their late 40s, and they find themselves elevated to positions of responsibility with only a few short years left before they have to leave. Many of these men and women enjoy police work. No, they are not immune to the aging process; they might not run as fast or for as long as a 22 year old new recruit, but we still need them for their experience, accumulated knowledge, and ability to guide the department through a period of tumultuous change. As a worker in my late 40s myself, I have well over 25 years of accumulated experience to draw upon in doing my job developing software. The police and firefighters are no different. There is a physical component to their jobs that a keyboard warrior like myself doesn’t have, but there is a very important leadership component that we share in common.
For example — and he’s probably going to put me in cuffs for mentioning his name, but so be it — is the commander of the Training Bureau, Sgt. Mark Schmidt. The Training Bureau is the part of the department to which the CERT team, which I am a part of, answers to.
Mr. Schmidt has been with the force for a long time, and like many good officers, he has worked hard and risen to the rank of Sergeant. This is not a simple or easy accomplishment, as any officer who has taken the test and gone through the interview process can tell you. Sgt. Schmidt is in his late 40s, and due to his election to participate in the DROP for financial reasons, will be forced out of the department by next summer.
Schmidt’s been an important part of the Training Bureau, and by extension, the CERT. Under his leadership, the CERT has made big strides towards improving our operational readiness, and I can speak for the CERT in saying that we’d like to keep him around. In fact, we would have liked to keep every officer that has lead us in the past and then gone on to retirement, but Sgt. Schmidt has been a special case. He has an understanding of what the team is about and how to manage it that is unusual in my experience. In addition, he has also recently taken the lead on the Active Assailant Training offered to community leaders that I was privileged to attend.
With new officers coming in in big batches, the Training Bureau is a critical function of SHPD. The performance of that bureau is in no small part responsible for the future of the department.
It’s a shame that as Sgt. Schmidt retires, Training and CERT will move on to another officer, who will have to work for months just to pick up where he left off. That new commander will just be starting to resume Schmidt’s progress and then will retire.
The lack of continuity is a problem for CERT, and it is a much bigger problem for the SHPD as a whole.
As I understand it, the DROP has been in the process of being phased out. But there are still a number of senior-level officers who are in the program, and as a result, they are progressing toward a retirement date that they cannot change. Although it may have made financial sense for them to take the option, the result is that they find themselves out of a job with potentially 10 or 20 more good working years left, and they don’t get the opportunity to stay in a place where they have spent the majority of their careers and could potentially do the most good.
To put a really fine point on this, take a look at the newspaper. In the past weeks, we’ve had a high school student arrested for making terrorist threats, we’ve had an armed robbery that turned into a kidnapping/carjacking that took place near enough to our schools that they went into lockdown mode, and a raid on businesses in the strip mall just north of 15 Mile Road and Van Dyke. We’ve also just seen a murderer who preyed on the elderly last year convicted of his crime. It takes experienced police commanders to respond properly to these sorts of events, and from what we’ve seen in the national news, more bad things are certain to come.
Yes, the city is pretty safe for its size, but that is partly due to the experience of the command officers managing the Police Department. I think we need to keep these guys around for as long as possible, and to do that I think the city needs to explore ways to change up the DROP for the remaining people who are on it to make it possible for them to stay if they’re valuable. Don’t you think so?