By Mara H. Gottfried
ST. PAUL, Minn. — With a large number of St. Paul police officers expected to retire next year, the department is holding its first job fair this month.
The department has had booths at such events, but St. Paul police haven't held their own job fair, said acting Cmdr. Jennifer O'Donnell, who heads the training unit. They hope the fair will help attract qualified candidates.
On average, about 17 officers leave the St. Paul Police Department in a year, said Howie Padilla, police spokesman. The department anticipates more than 30 officers could be retiring next year. St. Paul Police Federation President Dave Titus said the number could "be somewhere in the range of 45."
The expected burst of retirements will occur at police departments across Minnesota because of changes coming to the statewide pension for police officers and firefighters, Titus said. Police officers retiring after June 30 will face greater reductions in pensions if they choose to retire before age 55.
Meanwhile, the St. Paul police union has been in a dispute with the mayor's office over police officer pay, and the disagreement is rearing its head in the context of the job fair. Titus said officer pay puts the department at a disadvantage in recruitment and retention. He said he worries that St. Paul "will become a feeder system of cops for higher-paying agencies."
"A police department has to be competitive in wages in order to recruit the best and the brightest officers," Titus said. "St. Paul is not."
The Police Federation has been pressing Mayor Chris Coleman for an 11 percent wage increase over the next three years or more. The mayor's office has offered 5.5 percent over a three-year contract, the amount most of the city's large labor unions have agreed to, said Joe Campbell, Coleman's spokesman.
"We have a really competitive (compensation) package, one of the best in the metro," Campbell said. "When we recruit, we get officers from the communities that they're (the police union) saying have such high pay ... because St. Paul is such a great place to work."
At the job fair, police will showcase specialized units in the department, including demonstrations from the K-9 and bomb units, O'Donnell said.
The department's job fair also will include information about entry-level positions -- parking-enforcement officers and community-liaison officers, which are considered feeder programs to becoming police officers. People at the fair will learn about the department's volunteer reserve officer positions.
"The point of this is to reach candidates now and also candidates for the future, such as younger people who may be eventually interested in law enforcement," O'Donnell said. "There will be many officers there, and it's a chance to come and pick their brains."
There are currently 583 St. Paul police officers, though the department's authorized strength is 610. The next academy of about 30 cadets starts Dec. 2, O'Donnell said. The department plans to hold another police academy next summer, she said.
While hundreds of people typically apply to become St. Paul police officers, "there's always a fight for good candidates" among police departments, O'Donnell said.
St. Paul police last accepted applications for new officers about two years ago, Padilla said. The department will accept applications next from Dec. 9 to Jan. 6. During that time, information will be posted at stpaul.gov/jobs. Information also is available by calling 651-266-6500.
The St. Paul police contract expired Dec. 31, but officers are still on the job. The union and the city are headed to arbitration.
The Police Federation and mayor's office disagree with each other's calculations for how St. Paul officers' pay compares with other Twin Cities police departments.
The union has figured that an officer's pay over his or her career puts St. Paul 22nd out of 27 cities in the area, Titus said. Pay starts at about $49,000 and tops out after 20 years at about $77,000, he said.
The mayor's office says figuring in total compensation, including benefits, for patrol officers over a 30-year period puts the department third among the 25 largest police departments in the metro area.
The Police Federation has been trying to make its case with a TV ad urging people to call the mayor's office. A new radio spot began airing Saturday; it features St. Paul police officer Dan King, who was seriously wounded during an ambush shooting last year.
The union also has a flier that touches on the recruitment issue with a staged photograph of a "Police Officer Recruiting Day." It shows St. Paul police officers lined up at a table with a sign for Minneapolis and suburban departments; another photo shows an empty table for St. Paul police. The Police Federation will be circulating the flier on social media and running it as an ad in a statewide police professional magazine, Titus said.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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