Domino effect hurts departments
By Connie Paige
The Boston Globe
BOSTON, Mass. — After years of losing police officers to budget cuts, communities are bracing for more declines as their men and women in blue request lateral transfers to better-paying departments or march off to war.
The loss has been devastating to some police departments. Small-town officials, particularly, report a lack of manpower to perform routine criminal investigations or for overtime to get the job done.
Tewksbury, for example, recently faced the loss of eight officers -- until officials took quick action to stanch the flow.
"I'm reluctant to use the word crisis, but it's certainly a situation of deep concern for most communities," said Wayne Sampson, executive director of the Massachusetts Police Chiefs Association, a statewide lobbying group.
But one chief in the region, who himself got jolted by lateral transfers out of his department, said they also can be a boon to communities that can use higher salaries and better benefits to attract the cream of the crop working in places paying less.
"It's a unique opportunity to hire experienced officers," said Arlington Police Chief Frederick Ryan.
Like sports professionals who leave the home team, police officers want the opportunity provided by a lateral transfer. They also do not appreciate being denied the chance to move on, especially if their community is having fiscal problems, said Tewksbury Patrolman James Hollis, president of the police union local.
"If you are in the private sector and you had a mortgage and a wife and kids to support, it would only be a foolish person who wouldn't look for another job," Hollis said.
While police have taken advantage of lateral transfers in the past, they became more popular last spring after Boston, plagued with violent crime, decided to beef up its police force and recruited officers from elsewhere. The bright lights and big city -- and a larger paycheck -- lured many officers from outlying communities.
Boston's gain, however, was others' pain and caused a domino effect. Arlington, for example, lost two officers that way, Ryan said, and had to find a way to replace them. Ryan requested transfers from other, smaller places.
One of them was Tewksbury, which already had problems of its own.
The town had a projected budget deficit of more than $3 million for this fiscal year, which started July 1. The Police Department was already down three officers, from 58 to 55, because of budget cuts since 2002. Officials also expected two retirements from the force.
Last May, after one officer requested and won a lateral transfer to Boston, five more decided to try to leave that way. Two of the five had received pink slips signaling they might be laid off after the fiscal year because of the budget crunch, said Town Manager David Cressman.
Cressman, who serves as the town's appointing authority for police, said he and Tewksbury Police Chief Alfred Donovan together decided they could not lose the five.
Without them, Cressman said, officials would have had to use existing officers on overtime pay to keep the town safe -- stressing an already stretched budget.
Cressman and Donovan invoked a state law that requires the community sending the officers to approve the transfer. Tewksbury withheld approval.
Hollis said the denial "left a general distaste in everybody's mouth."
Ryan said he made a conditional offer of employment to the hopefuls but withdrew it after Tewksbury refused to release them.
"I know some officers get upset," Ryan said. "Like I said to the officers, we don't get upset when you exercise your rights; why should you get upset when we exercise ours?"
Now, Ryan said, he is poised to hire two officers transferring from other departments.
Adding to the lateral transfer complication is the loss of police officers to military service.
For Billerica, the deployment of five officers in the military over the past few years has been costly for the town, said Police Chief Daniel Rosa. He has had to pay a portion of their salaries and sometimes overtime to replace them on patrols, he said.
Then, last spring, when three of his remaining officers in the 65-member force requested transfers to Boston, Rosa said he decided to deny them.
"I could lose people, but what am I going to do?" he said. "Take from smaller departments? Put a burden on smaller communities? I don't think that's fair."
Rosa said he believes his officers understood. "I don't blame them for wanting to go to a larger department where there are possible opportunities, but I have a responsibility to the town."
In Stoneham, the loss of a called-up officer will make a bad situation worse, said police Lieutenant James McIntyre.
Stoneham police staffing, once at 41, was pared to 34 because of budget cuts, and then one of its officers, who is in the National Guard, was told to report for duty this October.
With a couple of retirements anticipated soon, McIntyre said, the force has had to retrench.
"Unfortunately, when you don't have the manpower, your calls for service get put off. You really have to prioritize calls you respond to."
Also, his said, detectives are not able to do investigations or follow up with victims of crime because they are answering calls for service.
Chelmsford Police Chief James Murphy said he worries about his force, at 61 officers in 2002 and now down to 53.
"It's been frustrating, but every city and town is going through the same thing."
Copyright 2007 The Boston Globe
Call-ups, transfers weaken Boston police