The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

September 30, 2012

Oil boom a bust for understaffed police force

By Cass Rains and James Neal
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — Fourteen officers have resigned from Enid Police Department since August 2011, reminiscent of the oil boom of the 1980s.

Chief Brian O’Rourke said keeping officers is challenging with the resurgence of the energy industry in Oklahoma over the past two years, and calls the loss of so many officers “a broad issue.”

O’Rourke said the reason is monetary.

“Basically, what our attrition is now, I saw the same thing in the ’80s,” he said. “I was brand new then. The police department lost a lot of people, a lot of people left for higher pay. It’s hard to compete right now.”

O’Rourke said the department cannot match companies offering a third more pay.

The chief said the department will not go back into negotiations with the city of Enid until January for the 2013-2014 fiscal years.

Officers agreed to a two-year pay freeze during the last round of negotiations.

“Two years ago, the city wasn’t in quite the financial shape it is in now,” O’Rourke said, noting the state had made budget cuts and the city’s revenue projections were not “optimistic.”

Click here to see bargaining agreement

FOP Lodge 144 President Sgt. Greg Bergdall said officers will begin meeting soon to discuss what they want in the upcoming contract. Changes to the pay plan and increased pay likely will be discussed.

Bergdall said it is hard for a police department to compete with higher-paying jobs available.

“Having a job that pays an extra 8, 9, 10 bucks an hour is like having another salary coming into the house,” he said. “Those jobs have always paid well. It’s hard to compete with that nowadays.”

Enid Police Department is not alone in its inability to compete with lucrative jobs in the energy field and related industries. Many municipalities and small employers have struggled to retain their workforce in the face of available, and higher-paying “boom” jobs.

But EPD’s pay scale at the lower ranks is not only falling behind private sector industry, it also comes in lower than the pay at police departments in comparable Oklahoma cities.

There is a wide range of pay for law enforcement officers in Oklahoma, from smaller departments, where officers might have a starting hourly wage of less than $10, to the larger metro departments, such as Tulsa, where a patrolman can start at more than $21 per hour.

In an effort to make a valid comparison, the Enid News & Eagle obtained police pay scales from McAlester, Bartlesville, Stillwater, Muskogee, Ardmore and Lawton, cities often used as being comparable to Enid for size, economy and job market.

All of those departments hire new patrol officers at a greater hourly wage than EPD’s starting wage of $14.35. Starting police wages in the compared cities range from Ardmore, closest to EPD at $14.60 per hour to start, up to Stillwater, where a patrolman starts out at $20.12 per hour.

EPD’s starting pay for a patrolman currently is $2.13 per hour less than the average for the compared cities.

While a patrolman in Enid may start out with less pay than officers in comparable cities, he or she will climb above the average at higher ranks. EPD sergeants, lieutenants and captains all earn above the average wage in the compared cities, and they earn more than the same rank in all of the compared cities, with the exception of Bartlesville and Stillwater.

But, the promise of more pay now in the energy sector may be keeping young EPD officers from waiting long enough to attain higher rank and better pay.

That effect is shown in EPD’s attrition during the past year. With 14 officers gone, EPD is double the average attrition for the six compared cities.

O’Rourke said he hopes to increase EPD’s base pay, and make it more competitive with other departments.

“Our base right now is $29,800,” he said. “You can see we’re a little behind the curve, which is what I want to improve while still staying fiscally responsible.

“Our starting salary is going to have to raise,” he said. “It (the department’s pay plan) needs to be revamped. We’re looking at other pay plans from other agencies.”

Oklahoma Association of Chiefs of Police acting Director Phil Cotton said the energy sector is affecting most police departments across the state, especially departments with 10 or fewer officers.

The former Norman Police Department chief said he averaged a loss of about 10 officers a year due to attrition and retirements out of a force of about 160.

“The smaller agencies, attrition is horrible because they don’t pay anything and they get guys moving on,” Cotton said. “Fourteen seems a little high to me for an agency with 100 people or so.”

Cotton also said the economic boom in the energy sector is a factor for losing officers.

“The pay and the benefits I’m sure is a factor,” he said.

O’Rourke said the loss of officers has created difficulties for the department in more than one way.

“The economic impact is hard. What’s harder is the wear and tear on your personnel,” he said. “You have officers called back for minimum staffing requirement or EOD (emergency order of detention) transports. If we’re running close to minimum staffing, it’s hard for someone to take a day off.”

Despite the loss of so many officers, the chief said the department always has had officers on the streets.

“We’ve always met minimum staffing levels,” he said. “We’re just going to keep maintaining the quality of service the community is accustomed to. The officers are working hard, without a doubt.”

Getting more officers on the streets will take more than qualified applicants. It will take a significant amount of time to rebound from the loss of so many officers.

“It takes almost a year to have someone come in through the door to going out in a car by themselves,” O’Rourke said. “I don’t think our training is excessive. We want highly trained officers on the street. We don’t want to cut corners with our training.”

Capt. Bryan Skaggs, who oversees hiring for the department, said the recent boom has not affected the type of candidates who apply at the department.

“I think with any application process you see a broad spectrum of the community,” Skaggs said. “I think the quality stays the same.”

He said Enid is not alone in losing officers to other industries. At a recent meeting of the Oklahoma Association of Chiefs of Police, he said Oklahoma City Police Department was the only one not in need of more officers.

Four applicants finished examinations Friday afternoon before the Enid Police Civil Service Commission and were extended conditional offers of employment. The four must complete a psychological exam and a physical for the pension board before being officially hired.

“Our application process from the time we lose an officer is four to six months before we can get them hired and into an academy, O’Rourke said. “We’re not going to reduce our standards because we’re short.”

The process already has begun again.

“We’ve already started another application process, and we have 66,” Skaggs said.

“You’ve got to want to do it. I always thought law enforcement was more of a career than a job,” he said. “A lot of people just consider it a job. I consider it a career.

“We’re getting a lot of applicants. If they were looking for jobs that paid more, they’re out there. I’m hoping they choose the police career.”