Low morale cited for rash
By Alice McQuillan Daily News Staff Writer
() -- Droves of experienced cops are pulling out of the Police Department, taking advantage of early retirement programs or flat out quitting - creating a potential crisis for a department already struggling to recruit officers. By the start of last month, 1,112 police officers of all ranks retired this year, nearly a 45% hike over the 769 retirees from the corresponding period last year, according to police records.
Low morale, minuscule raises and widespread job dissatisfaction - as well as a wealth of available jobs in the private sector - are fueling the exodus, according to many cops.
Part of the problem is timing: Because of the NYPD's expansion in the 1980s, one of every four officers will be eligible to retire with a 20-year pension by 2004.
And several new pension and retirement laws are expected to hasten the mad rush for the door.
But there's more to the exodus than just new retirement-friendly laws - 616 officers not eligible for pensions resigned this year, up nearly 15% from the 537 who quit during the first 10 months of last year, police records show.
"People are getting out, morale is basically low, there are a lot of factors, but primarily it's the pay," said Lt. Barry Goldblatt, 58, who is retiring after 32 years. "Low morale is caused by officers' not making enough money. Even officers who love what they do still have bills, and when you have a family, salary is the bottom line."
The drain looms just as the NYPD struggles to cut crime and attract recruits: A $10 million recruitment drive failed to fill a recent Police Academy class.
At the NYPD's pension office, workers processed five retirement applications a day last year, as would-be retirees waited two weeks for an appointment.
Now the office sees 15 cops a day, with a three-month wait for an appointment.
At the storied Manhattan North homicide squad, 20 detectives and supervisors - 538 years of collective wisdom - will have retired from the beginning of this year to early next year.
Detective Tony Vazquez is among them. At age 40, enjoying top pay and prestige as a first-grade detective, Vazquez was a young star in the department. He quit this fall to become a flight attendant with JetBlue Airways. His pension, new salary and travel benefits made his choice easy because he wants to move to Florida and still be able to visit his kids in New York. However, he said he worries about the talent vacuum as veterans leave.
"It's going to be a big impact, just the experience; you are talking about guys who have gotten confessions from high-profile suspects," Vazquez said. "I don't think the department has done anything to keep any of us."
NYPD cops start at $31,000 - about $2,000 to $11,000 lower than other major cities pay their cops.
"The ill effects of this bloodletting are going to be felt on the next mayor's watch when the cadre of people who have been in the trenches keeping crime down are gone," said Anthony Garvey, head of the Lieutenants Benevolent Association.
Critics say the department has done nothing to counter all these forces draining its best and brightest. Police union officials advocate a deferred retired plan (DROP) such as the one San Diego has adopted.
Under DROP, an officer locks in his pension but postpones collecting it while continuing to work for a few extra years. Advocates say the city benefits by keeping the experienced officer on the payroll. The officer's carrot is that his yearly retirement benefit accumulates over those extra years, giving him a six-figure lump payment when he finally does leave.
Tom Antenen, spokesman for Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, said the department is studying the DROP plan.
Antenen also questioned the notion that morale is plummeting. Since Kerik took over in August, he has held informal sessions with officers to hear their take on the job.
"Morale is stronger than people would believe by listening to those who have an agenda," Antenen said.
To make matters worse for the NYPD, three state laws passed this year make retirement even more alluring, said Joseph Maccone, the pension consultant with the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association.
Officers hired after July 1, 1973, are able to base their pension on their final year's salary - providing immediate incentive to cops who earned overtime for the United Nations Millennium Summit, the Fourth of July Op Sail and the Subway Series.
Another recent law lets officers with as little as five years of experience vest into the pension system. Before this change, 33 officers with less than 20 years of experience retired from January 1999 through Nov. 1, 1999, Maccone said. For the corresponding period this year, that figure has soared to 185.
The third new law permits officers to draw upon past military service to increase their pensions. For a fee - 3% of one's annual salary for each military year purchased - wartime veterans can add up to three years of military service to their police pension.
"I won't say it's the big cases that are suffering; those are pooled with the best detectives brought in," said a police source. "But I think in general the overall investigative ability is impaired."
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