06/26/2006

Utah officers' 'blue flu' sickens residents

By Linda Fantin and Lisa Rosetta
The Salt Lake Tribune
Copyright 2006 The Salt Lake Tribune
All Rights Reserved

OGDEN - Perhaps it's the proximity to Hill Air Force Base or the city's economic reliance on defense contractors, but people in this blue-collar city have little sympathy for those who would abandon, even temporarily, their duty.

"It's desertion," says 20-year-old Chris Baldwin, a resident of North Ogden.

"It's pathetic," adds ChanÂtelle Baily, 19.

Their disgust is with Ogden police officers who, to make a point, are willing to stay home rather than protect and serve.

About 36 officers called in sick Saturday, the second day of protest over a new pay policy that requires them to score higher on performance evaluations than other city workers to get the same 5 percent raise. The no-shows forced Ogden to rely on its upper echelon - six lieutenants and two sergeants - as well as neighboring law-enforcement agencies, and to warn that less-critical calls may go unanswered.

That didn't seem to be the case from midnight to noon when, according to police logs, officers responded to reports of car burglaries, barking dogs and loud parties. But as the day wore on, the police work got more serious.

About 2:15 p.m., police learned that 21-year-old Ryan Todd Oman had picked up his ex-girlfriend from a women's crisis center, said Assistant Chief Randy Watt. The woman had obtained a protective order against Oman, who was also wanted by police for shooting another man in the face June 13.

Police eventually spotted Oman's vehicle - driven by his ex-girlfriend - westbound on Canyon Road and pulled the pair over in the 1000 block of 12th Street. A SWAT team was called in, including a trained negotiator, but Oman and the woman refused to exit the car. She told police that while she was not being held hostage, Oman had a pistol in his right hand and was threatening suicide.

Several times, Oman acted as if he were going to surrender, Watt said. Suddenly, however, he shot himself in the head. The woman, who was pressed up against him, was injured by a bone fragment that struck her in the right side of her neck. The woman began screaming and officers pulled the pair from the car.

Oman died at McKay-Dee Hospital. The woman, whose injuries were not life threatening, was in good condition Saturday night.

Even with the bulk of his police force gone, Watt said the standoff was handled well.

"We had sufficient resources on, and the SWAT team is made up of five different agencies," he said.

Sgt. Troy Arrowsmith, president of the Ogden Police Benefit Association, said, although the department managed OK, that might not be the case in days to come. Six to 12 officers have interviewed with other law enforcement agencies, signaling more serious side effects of the so-called blue flu.

"Most of it is they can only put in so many years without being satisfactorily compensated for their time here," he said.

Until last year, the average hourly wage for new Ogden officers was $13.27 an hour, Arrowsmith said. When the starting wage was bumped up to $15.30 an hour, officers working at the lower rate received a $2 raise. But that didn't factor in merit raises those officers had received, which meant some veteran officers were making the same wage as new hires.

Compounding their frustration is a City Council-approved pay plan, which goes into effect Saturday.

It gives all city workers a one-time 2 percent bonus and allows employees to earn up to 5 percent more in performance pay. To get the maximum amount, city employees must score a 3 or higher on job reviews, while police officers must score a 4.5.

Police officers are seeking the same performance pay standard as city workers, plus a 2 percent cost-of-living raise. They say they are being punished, noting the tougher standard was imposed after negotiations with police unions reached an impasse. If the current policy is allowed to stand, warns Arrowsmith, officers will have to write more tickets to earn higher scores on their evaluations, basically taxing the citizens.

Even so, some residents insist police officers should have to score better than a "C" on job evaluations. As Baldwin notes: "They carry guns."

"They're supposed to be the 'city's finest,' right?" adds Marcia Rodriguez. "They're supposed to hold themselves to a higher standard."

Rodriguez, 51, lives in nearby Garland and works at Moore's Barber Shop in downtown Ogden, whose poverty and crime rates are among the highest in the state. Workaday people can relate to concerns about fairness and equal pay, she says. But gripes with city administrators do not entitle officers to shirk their duty to the people who pay their salaries: Taxpayers.

Adds 22-year-old Stacie Larsen: "My mom's a social worker for the state, and [the Legislature] recently took away some of their retirement benefits. But she didn't walk off the job. It's irresponsible."

Tim Bolton, 20, is a waiter at La Ferrovia Ristorante. He believes the protest is justified. If anything, he says, police officers deserve more money than other city workers. "They're not being treated fairly," he says.

Tina Valasquez, a waitress at The Athenian, says the officers made a pledge to protect the public, but in this case they had few options. "Maybe now the city will realize that these people are really important."

In the meantime, Arrowsmith said, officers are at home, "sick," and feeling discontented.

"It's actually harder on them to stay home than it is to come in," he said. "They really do care about the community they work in."

lfantin@sltrib.com

lrosetta@sltrib.com 

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