OLD SAYBROOK — Chief of Police Michael Spera is expected to ask the town’s Police Commission to increase pay and benefits for tenured police officers after a recent report on employee turnover indicated that benefits may be a reason that the department is losing officers.
Spera compiled the report at the request of the Board of Selectmen in an effort to better understand why officers were leaving the department at a relatively high rate. In January, the board counted 32 police officers who have left the department since 2009, the year Spera became chief of police. An additional two left the department between January and May.
The report included exit interviews for 10 officers, as well as responses from two exercises in which Spera asked current officers and dispatchers how the department could attract and retain employees.
In a letter dated May 17, Spera asked the commission to support a proposal to increase the annual pay for certified police officers who come to the department with three or more years of experience from $63,865 to $78,943, the highest rate of pay for a patrolman in the department. He also asked that they support granting officers with five or more years of experience 16 vacation days per year, as opposed to the 11 offered to new police officers.
Five out of the 10 officers who completed an exit interview said they were leaving Old Saybrook for another police department. Six officers also mentioned in their interviews that they would have liked to have better benefits and/or more opportunities to grow.
Comments from current employees also reflected a desire for better benefits and contracts. Out of 31 responses to the first exercise on employee retention, at least 12 mentioned benefits and six mentioned the current contract as reasons they believed retention rates were low. Out of 28 officers who responded to the second exercise, 15 listed benefits as a potential reason for low retention.
Respondents asked for more vacation days, a better lateral transfer package, health insurance after retirement and more opportunities for growth. They also asked the department to eliminate “administrative days” — 12 additional days per year for professional development or community policing that employees work without pay.
“Every contract since I have been here things have been taken away or added to negatively impact our benefits,” one employee wrote in a retention exercise. “The town seems to keep taking and giving nothing in return to benefit us.”
Respondents also mentioned needing more time off for childcare and medical issues, and at least one requested leave time for new parents.
Several respondents mentioned a lack of consistent hours, and said that people faced burnout as a result of constantly being ordered in to cover road jobs.
“We practically ask them [new employees] to go elsewhere after training,” wrote one employee.
At least five former officers left Old Saybrook to work for the East Lyme Police Department.
Old Saybrook’s base annual salary is $63,865 for the lowest-tier police officers and $78,943 for the highest tier. In comparison, East Lyme’s base annual salary is $60,444 for the lowest-tier police officer and $78,665 for top-tier.
While Old Saybrook offers only a high-deductible health plan at a top rate of $2,250 for individuals, East Lyme offers a choice between a high-deductible plan at a top rate of $2,000 for individuals and a PPO. The town of Old Saybrook contributes less to the deductible payments than East Lyme, while East Lyme requires employees to pay a higher percentage of the premium costs. East Lyme also offers a lower level of longevity pay than Old Saybrook.
Vacation time appears to be comparable, although East Lyme does not require employees to work an additional 96 hours of “administrative days.” East Lyme also offers six months of unpaid maternity leave.
Asked about turnover, East Lyme Chief of Police Mike Finkelstein told CT Examiner that only “a handful” of officers have left the East Lyme Police Department, and that none of them say they have left because of benefits or have taken jobs with other police departments.
Conditions within the department
Exit interviews from Old Saybrook indicated additional reasons that employees left. Some had to do with life changes or family connections in other departments. Others, however, expressed discontent with the department itself.
One officer who had been with the department since before Spera was chief, said he was leaving because of conditions within the department, according to notes accompanying the employee’s 2015 exit interview.
“He felt that when [former Old Saybrook Chief of Police] Mosca was here [it] was extremely laid back, did very few arrests,” an interviewer noted. “When Chief Spera started we went to the other extreme and everyone got arrested and officer discretion was less.”
The officer also noted that the morale in the department was low.
“He said many young officers feel they are talked down to,” the interviewer wrote, adding that the officer also believed that the department needed to improve its public image.
Another officer wrote that he or she “felt micromanaged” in the department and that there was “unequal treatment with other employees.”
In response to a question about whether concerns were addressed, the officer wrote, “Yes, Chief Spera, I feel they were heard but not acted upon.”
But exit interviews may not give the whole picture of employees’ motives for leaving.
In December, several officers told CT Examiner they left the department because of a toxic work environment. One of those officers chose not to give an exit interview, another said he told the interviewer he was leaving for “personal” reasons and a third said he just left the exit interview form blank.
The commission will discuss the report and the chief’s letter at its meeting on Monday, May 24 at 7 p.m.
This story has been edited to clarify Spera’s request for police compensation based on comments at a later, May 24 meeting.