As Murders Soar, the Cops Retire 

A sweet new pension deal is decimating local police forces, even as crime begins a long climb back into the stratosphere.

Crime is making a comeback. As of this writing, Oakland homicides have reached 67, up from 42 this time last year. In Berkeley, a deranged young man stabbed a complete stranger in the heart right off Telegraph Avenue in broad daylight -- the year's fifth killing to date in a city that had just one murder last year. Richmond's homicide rate is on track to increase by 64 percent, or possibly more. "We're not quite as bad as Oakland, but it's not over yet; September is our busiest month for murders," says one police source. No one has yet pinpointed exactly where this bloodlust is coming from, but everyone is scared. As hundreds of outraged citizens packed Oakland's City Hall last week, their message was clear: We need cops, now more than ever.

Too bad hundreds of cops are quitting.

The East Bay is experiencing an unprecedented shortage of exactly what we need now: smart, experienced cops who know there's more to police work than knocking heads. Veteran officers are retiring in record numbers, even as crime spikes to levels not seen in five years. The same problem is confronting cities around the state, as an obscure new benefits package known as "three percent at fifty" lures experienced cops to retire with pensions worth up to ninety percent of their salaries. Take the example of Berkeley Police Chief Dash Butler, who recently retired and is drawing a remarkable pension of $139,763. He's hardly alone; according to deputy city manager Phil Kamlarz, 25 percent of Berkeley's 196 cops will retire over the next twelve months, and the city is scrambling to replace them. Alameda, with its 102 officers, is facing the same crisis. "Everyone that can is retiring," says Marsha Merrick of the city's Human Resources Department. "In January, we had a mass exodus. Ten or twelve people retired on January 1, 2002, the very day it became effective. For a small town like us, that's very big. People were jumping ship immediately."

As departments struggle to recruit new cops, wages are rising too. Over the last eighteen months, cities such as Berkeley, Alameda, and San Leandro have renegotiated their police and fire contracts, seeking to one-up each other and poach experienced officers. Coming during an economic downturn, the resulting pay packages have left these cities staring at budget deficits. It's easy street for aging boomer officers -- but hard times for the rest of us.

Last summer, Berkeley's management team had spent six months hammering out the terms of a new police contract. After complex negotiations, the union and the city finally reached a tentative deal. All it took was a vote by the rank and file, and the new contract would take effect. But it went terribly wrong. "The union voted overwhelmingly against it," Kamlarz says. "The reason was that a bunch of other jurisdictions had just reported their salaries, and the union saw they weren't competitive."

Staying competitive has never been so important. As the most experienced officers retire from departments across the East Bay, police and fire unions have been able to play one city off of another, securing fat pay raises despite a still-tanking economy. Starting salary for Berkeley patrol officers is now $60,500, up from $55,400 in the previous contract, which ran from 1997 to 2001. And as the stock market collapses, the city's pension plan is growing more and more costly; whereas city managers once financed Berkeley's CalPERS employee retirement packages with ample Nasdaq dividends, the market implosion has forced them to dip into the general fund to pay off the same expenses. As a result of this and rising employee medical costs, says Kamlarz, the city is looking at a deficit in two years. "The problem is the benefits are better, costs are gonna go up, and we have to remain competitive," he says.

Two cities have emerged as the local leaders in driving up wages and poaching cops from their neighbors. In Alameda, a beat cop starts his first day on the job earning $64,236 and can earn as much as $78,060 -- and that's without passing the sergeant's exam. And in Richmond, under the terms of a contract that takes effect in January, cops and firefighters get to be the second-highest-paid safety officers on a list of twelve cities that includes Palo Alto, Mountain View, and Alameda. In essence, Richmond surrendered control of its municipal finances to these other cities. Whenever any of these cities gives its cops a raise that tops Richmond, that city must automatically raise its pay to compensate. Even then, Richmond Workforce-Relations Officer Rob Larson worries that other cities could top his offer. "Vallejo seems to be raising the bar," he says. "But right now they're waiting to see where we go. And Berkeley's doing the same; once they see what we do, they'll go through an adjustment."

According to Darin Hall, a spokesman for California's Public Employees Retirement System, the state legislature made the three percent at fifty package available to cops in late 1999, and cities throughout California have adopted it piecemeal over the last two years. "That's one of the main things I've heard, that the police associations are saying to agencies, 'Hey, the neighboring city's got it, we want it, and you've got to implement it if you want to stay competitive,'" Hall says.

But three percent at fifty was adopted at the apogee of an unprecedented economic boom, when the Dow was pushing 11,000 and everyone wanted to play the market. Now, with the market posting new losses every other day even as new cities adopt this bull-market retirement system, California municipalities are dipping into money earmarked for social programs to finance pensions they thought would take care of themselves.


Perhaps nowhere has the police shortage hurt the bottom line more than in Oakland, the epicenter of the East Bay's new crime wave. Earlier this summer, the city manager's office was forced to implement a series of painful cost-cutting measures to resolve a $28 million budget deficit. These moves included a hiring freeze and mandatory unpaid leave for legions of city employees. A big piece of the city's deficit is directly linked to the new police and fire contracts; the increased wages cost the city roughly $9 million. In addition, the declining stock market dried up dividends used to finance the preexisting police and fire pension plans, forcing the city to pay between $9 and $11 million out of pocket. Of the $28 million deficit, almost $20 million was due to police and fire compensation packages. And Oakland is scheduled to implement the three percent at fifty benefit next year.

Yet Oakland cops remain among the East Bay's lowest-paid. While police in tranquil Alameda and Fremont enjoy rookie salaries in excess of $60,000, entry-level wages for OPD recruits are a comparatively paltry $56,364. Although this is head and shoulders above the Oakland median household income of $40,055, the higher pay and easier working environment of nearby cities creates a huge turnover problem for the force. Cities around the East Bay constantly poach its cops, draining Oakland of experienced officers and often leaving raw recruits to walk the toughest streets in Northern California. While the average age of Berkeley cops hovers in the late thirties, for example, the average Oakland cop is a mere 24-year-old. After all, why dodge bullets in Oakland when you can write speeding tickets in Alameda for more money? Cities are so eager to poach Oakland officers that Chief Richard Word forces those who leave before serving five years to repay a portion of their training and academy costs.

Turnover has left Oakland perpetually unprepared to handle the complexities of a rising homicide rate. At last Tuesday's meeting of the Oakland City Council, dozens of citizens demanded a return to the old system of community policing that Mayor Jerry Brown abolished in the fall. But even if the mayor hadn't abolished community policing, it takes time to develop trust and cooperation between cops and wary urban neighbors. As long as most officers leave town after a few years, such trust never germinates. And the departing officers are perpetually replaced with young recruits who lack the prudence and maturity that comes with age. In short, crime is back -- but we're not ready for it.

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