Sunday, September 14, 2003

Towns battle police turnover

The Associated Press

PATASKALA, Ohio - Police chiefs in small towns say attracting and keeping good officers can be as much of a challenge as fighting crime.

It's common for officers to move on to larger departments for salary reasons after a few years, leaving smaller communities short-handed and short on experience.

The case of Caleb Pinney, a police officer in this central Ohio community 17 miles west of Columbus, is typical.

Pinney, 31, joined the police force six years ago, hoping eventually to retire from the department. But his $30,000 annual salary is $4,000 less than a rookie police officer in Columbus makes and $23,000 less than he'd be making in Columbus with the same amount of experience.

"I'm being fulfilled professionally. It's financially that's the problem," Pinney said.

Until now, loyalty to his hometown and a strong sense of camaraderie with his co-workers have kept Pinney from straying. But in the last year, he has applied for two positions at Columbus-area departments.

"Until last year, I had never applied anywhere else, because my heart's here," he said. "I felt that if I left, I'd be letting them down."

Police Chief Chris Forshey said keeping seasoned officers is a constant struggle. He said crime in western Licking County is on the rise, but the department can't afford the wages needed to entice more-experienced officers to stay.

At least two other officers on Forshey's staff have applied to work elsewhere. Each of the department's 11 patrolmen has six years of experience or fewer.

"The ones I know that are looking are the ones that have a lot of potential," Forshey said. "We're trying to keep the core group we've got."

For some officers, starting off at a smaller department is a chance to try out the career, said Bob Cornwell, executive director of the Buckeye State Sheriffs' Association.

The decision to move on typically starts with wages, said John Looman of the Fraternal Order of Police, Ohio Labor Council.

"As soon as they have completed the obligations they have with that community, they will move on to a better community," he said.

Training police academy graduates can be a costly investment of time and money for cash-strapped departments.

Sending each new hire at the Johnstown Police Department to SWAT training, interview and interrogation classes and other seminars can cost as much as $4,000, said police Chief Don Corbin.

His department has nine full-time officers, six of them younger than 30.

Baltimore Police Chief Bret Rogers views young recruits in his 13-officer department as a worthwhile investment, even if they don't stay long.

He's lost a handful of employees in recent years to bigger departments but said he understands when they leave.

"If I can offer someone a start in a career, I don't really mind it being a stepping stone," he said.

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