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Wave of police early retirements opens door to new hires

Minneapolis - Anyone who wants to be become a police officer in Minnesota will find it a good time to look for work. A new pension rule that took effect Tuesday has prompted veteran law enforcement officers across the state to retire early at hig...

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What departments lose in experience during a wave of early retirements, Melton said, they gain in diversity — and not just race and gender. He said new recruits often bring a wide range of skills and knowledge to police forces. Illustration.

Minneapolis - Anyone who wants to be become a police officer in Minnesota will find it a good time to look for work.

A new pension rule that took effect Tuesday has prompted veteran law enforcement officers across the state to retire early at higher-than-usual numbers. That's led police departments to start hiring their replacements.

In Minnesota, law enforcement officers can retire before age 55 and start collecting benefits, though less than they would if they had waited. Under the new rule, officers who retire before that age will have to pay a greater penalty.

Over a five-year period, the new rule could cost officers who retire at 50 as much 15 to 20 percent of their pension until they reach 55, Minneapolis Deputy Police Chief Travis Glampe said.

The state's largest police force is feeling the effects of the new rule. In the first half of this year, 43 officers retired, well above the yearly average of 25 to 30 retirements.

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Typically, about 500 officers in Minnesota, or about five percent of all peace officers, retire each year, said Neil Melton, president of the Peace Officer Standards and Training board.

"But we expect, based on the unscientific surveys that that could bump up closer to 15 percent over the next couple of years," he said.

State troopers are covered under a different retirement program and are not rushing to retire early, said Lt. Eric Roeske, a spokesman for the State Patrol.

But the early retirement wave is hitting other law enforcement agencies across the state. In St. Paul, 24 officers have retired so far this year. The Hennepin County Sheriff's Office lost 11 deputies to early retirement.

What departments lose in experience during a wave of early retirements, Melton said, they gain in diversity - and not just race and gender. He said new recruits often bring a wide range of skills and knowledge to police forces.

"We may get people who have been in other professions for years and they're looking for something maybe that's more secure," Melton said. "Perhaps they've been laid off at some point. And we've seen officers from age 21 to 41 coming on."

Many of the new police officers, Melton said, come from the armed forces. He said it's common for people with military police experience to jump right into civilian law enforcement.

In Minneapolis, military vets make up 14 of the 29 members of this year's cadet class, said Glampe, the deputy chief.

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Those cadets will help fill some personnel gaps in the department. Glampe said retirements and other factors have left the department about 80 officers short of its target staffing level of between 850 to 860 officers.

But he said residents shouldn't worry that there won't be enough officers on duty to respond to 911 calls. Glampe said emergency response is the department's highest priority, and the department routinely moves officers around the city to make up for areas that are short-staffed.

Emergency response times in Minneapolis slowed down in 2013 compared to previous years, according to a city report released this spring.

Glampe said residents shouldn't expect to see new officers on the streets right away. New recruits must first complete the application process, physical fitness testing, interviews, background checks, medical evaluations and psychological evaluations.

As the entire process can take up to 18 months, the department began recruiting last year in anticipation of the wave of retirements. The department can save a little training time by hiring police officers who've been working for other agencies, but Glampe said such lateral hires are rare.

The demand for police officers has created a competitive job market, according to Sgt. John Delmonico, president of the Minneapolis Police Federation.

"Probably of the 25 cities in the metro area, we're probably like the 12th or 13th in pay," Delmonico said. "If we want to be competitive then it's time maybe to look at what we pay our cops and pay them some more so we can recruit and retain those good people."

The starting salary for a Minneapolis police officer ranges from $54,504 to $69,565, depending on how much previous experience the officer has.

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Glampe said the department expects to hire nearly 100 officers by the end of the year. He estimates about 46 new hires will start working between September and November. Another 20 to 30 will start in February of 2015.

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