The plan includes a yearly cost of $135,000 to increase the number of training sessions the department holds each year from two to four until 2017, about $12 million to purchase new cars to expand a take-home car program and $3.1 million in pay incentives, such as a program to pay officers with advanced degrees higher salaries.
Cobb County Board of Commissioners Chairman Tim Lee said this police improvement plan has been in the works since the beginning of the year.
“We have been working on this since (Cobb Public Safety Director) Sam (Heaton) got appointed last January. So Director Heaton spent several months assessing the situation and doing his own internal review and analysis. And (he) has been working on the preparation of his recommendation to get us fully staffed by Jan. 1, 2017, with a staffing structure that is, in his mind and (Police Chief John Houser’s) mind, the best way to move forward for the department,” Lee said.
Robert Quigley, spokesman for the county government, said the plan will require a total of $66 million to finance: $8 million from the general fund of the county’s budgets and $58 million from the proposed six-year one-cent special purpose local option sales tax.
While the Board of Commissioners will vote on the fiscal 2015 budget on August 26, the fiscal 2016 budget won’t be voted on until this time next year. The 2016 SPLOST will be voted on by the public on November 4.
The initiatives in the plan will be rolled out in stages between now and 2017. Some of the improvements are years away, such as a $16 million rebuild of the police headquarters, and some have already been implemented. For instance, the plan states $700,000 was already spent on new patrol rifles and $230,000 was spent on protective gear.
Lance LoRusso, counsel for the Cobb County lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, general counsel for the Georgia FOP and a former police officer, has been critical of the efforts by Cobb’s commissioners to address police retention. While he was glad to see some of the biggest issues facing the department addressed, he said the portions of the plan in the fiscal 2015 budget must be approved by commissioners before officers can begin to see some improvement.
“That’s part of the frustration of the officers,” he said. “They know the plan’s out. It’s been presented well to them. They all have a copy. They’re waiting to see the vote because until it’s voted on, it’s just another proposal.”
Improved recruiting, increased benefits
Heaton said the department has already completed some of the initiatives related to recruitment and hiring.
“We’ve done a lot on our recruiting and hiring end, trying to improve that,” he said. “We’ve added some folks to our internal affairs division to try to beef that up so we make sure we’re getting as many folks through the process as we can. And we’ve also done some recruiting efforts, as far as going out to job fairs, increased advertising and (a) streamlined … police application process.”
According to Heaton, the Cobb Police Department has 63 vacancies for sworn officers, including 40 new positions approved by the Board of Commissioners in March. The report states the department will need to hire about 232 officers by January 2017 for the department to be fully staffed, a projection based on the current retention levels.
Other hiring initiatives include increasing the number of police training academies from two per year to four. Heaton said it will help get new officers on the job faster.
“Previously, we had a class that would begin in January and a class that would begin in July. Anyone that we hired … after a class began in January — let’s say we hired them in March — they would have to wait, you know, four months before (another) class was going to start.”
Heaton said he hopes to have 25 officers in each class, for a total of 100 new officers being trained each year.
After recruiting and training the officers, Cobb police will be able to qualify for what’s called a “shift differential” beginning in fiscal 2015. Because some shifts are more dangerous or “less desirable,” the plan states, officers who work these shifts will qualify for an increased pay rate, or a differential.
Officers who work the evening shift will receive an extra $0.50 per hour, and officers working the “midnight shift” will receive an extra $1 per hour.
The plan also includes an educational incentive pay. While the specifics of this incentive are dependent on an 18-month pay study the commissioners ordered in April, Heaton said the plan will likely give an extra $1,000 per year to officers with an associate degree, $2,000 for a bachelor’s and $3,000 for a master’s.
By this time next year, when the fiscal 2016 budget is being considered, Heaton hopes the education incentive will be in the budget whether the pay study is complete or not.
“If they’re still not through with it, I would say that I would ask … to go ahead and move forward with it because so many (jurisdictions) around us are doing it,” he said.
LoRusso said he was glad to see the pay incentives in the plan.
“There were actually some things I was very happy to see, like an educational incentive, a shift deferential and, also, really enhanced efforts on recruiting. So, I thought those were very good,” he said.
All of the funding for pay incentives will come from the general fund of the county’s budget, according to Quigley, because SPLOST funds cannot be used for salaries or benefits.
Better shifts and take-home cars
Precinct 2 of the Cobb Police Department, which serves southwest Cobb, is unique among the county’s five precincts: Its officers work 10-hour shifts. According to the police improvement plan, the other four precincts will soon be following suit.
A 10-hour shift allows officers to work only four days a week, giving them an extra day off. Heaton believes the extra time off will significantly improve officer retention.
“When you work a 10-hour shift, as it cycles through the year, at the end of the year, you’re actually going to get about 50 days more off per year because those extra couple of hours add up,” he said.
Heaton said officers working eight-hour days go through three shift changes a day. As a result, there are three periods of time every day during which there are very few officers left in the field. 10-hour shifts will change that, he said, because they will be staggered throughout the day.
The precincts will adopt 10-hour shifts in stages: Precincts 1 and 3, serving northwest and southeast Cobb, respectively, by the end of 2015, and precincts 4 and 5, which serve northeast and west Cobb, by the end of 2016. The anticipated costs for the 10-hour shifts, about $1.6 million per precinct in the first year of implementation and $1.3 million per precinct per year after that, will also come from the general fund of the county’s budget.
Over the next 28 months, the county plans on spending about $2.2 million to replace aging police cars and about $12.3 million to expand their take-home car program. The funding for this initiative is dependent on SPLOST, Heaton said, although the department could still implement the program if it fails — it would take much longer, however.
“Now, obviously, there is money in SPLOST that would help with that tremendously. If the SPLOST doesn’t pass, my goal is (to) begin the take-home program next spring (or) summer. We would be able to do that, again, based on a budget passing with the requested cars in there. But we’d be able to start that. If the SPLOST didn’t pass, it would take us longer to get there, but we would still continue to work toward that take-home program.”
Take-home cars allow officers to arrive for their shifts ready to work. LoRusso said if the officers were sharing cars, the arriving officer may have to wait for the departing officer to arrive at the precinct in order to get a car and go to work — the way law enforcement was done 20 years ago, he added.
Heaton said 15 new cars, financed through the fiscal 2014 budget, were purchased in May and put in service in June. There are 55 additional cars which have been purchased, he added, but they are currently in the process of being outfitted for police use: Radio communication equipment, lights, sirens and decals must be added before police can use them.