Study gauges Utah police, firefighter dissatisfaction as agencies battle turnover
New research shows an accelerating trend of Utah police and firefighters leaving their occupations, but a Weber County legislator is proposing retirement system changes he hopes will help curb the exodus.
Ian Adams, executive director of the Utah Fraternal Order of Police and a researcher, said a study his firm conducted this spring showed a continuing stark decline in career outlooks after the state reduced public safety retirement programs 10 years ago.
Of workers in the Tier I group — those who were in the system before the 2011 changes — 56% say they are “definitely” staying for 20 years or more, Adams said. But of those in the Tier II group, with reduced benefit availability, only 14% definitely plan to stay 20 years.
Adams and Rep. Matthew Gwynn, R-Farr West, said there are numerous factors affecting public safety employee satisfaction and retention, but pay and benefits still head the list.
A decade ago, as state and local governments were suffering from the fiscal effects of the Great Recession, the Utah Legislature created a Tier II that extended the retirement date to 25 years, with Tier I employees staying at 20. The change also removed a defined-benefit funding mechanism and required employees to pay some toward their retirements. Further, lawmakers imposed a one-year cooling-off period that served to prevent officers from “retiring in place” and continuing in the same job.
Gwynn, a veteran police officer who recently was named chief of the Roy Police Department, has a bill that would cut the cooling-off period to 60 days and restore the 20-year retirement window for the Tier II public service employees.
The Legislature’s Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee on Wednesday unanimously endorsed the bill, which will advance for consideration in the 2022 general session.
In an interview after the meeting, Gwynn said significantly shortening the cooling-off period could keep many retirement-age officers from leaving law enforcement altogether. “People leaving at age 44 or 45 may want to stay police officers or might want to go work for a smaller agency,” Gwynn said.
With a full year’s cooling-off period, he said, many leave entirely. The full year restriction was aimed at stopping high-level administrators from “milking the system,” and rank-and-file officers were not the problem, according to Gwynn.
Gwynn’s proposed changes may cost the state an estimated $13 million to alter the cooling-off period and $3 million a year to restore the 20-year retirement. “There’s always going to be sticker shock,” he said. “But if that’s all we’re talking about, we’re completely ignoring the cumulative cost that the agencies are paying for extra training and the cost of overtime to keep the shifts filled.”
He cited the constitutional obligation that entities have to provide public safety for their residents. “It’s expensive and not shiny, but it’s a need as opposed to a want,” he said.
Gwynn said he believes the Tier II retirement system “has been a contributor to the recruitment and retention problem.” General morale, public perception of police, protests and rioting, “and what mayors do or say” all play a part, he said, “but one thing we do know is that pension and pay are always No. 1 and No. 2.”
Adams said the history of family and friends recommending police work or firefighting “is a strongly declining trend.” And the percentages of current employees not planning to stay until retirement “is going way, way down for both firefighters and police. Very few plan to retire and go back in.”
During the committee meeting, Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, said police salaries have been increasing “exponentially” this year and agencies “are seeing how they can outdo the others.”
Adams acknowledged that trend, but said it’s a reflection of cities and counties desperate to retain law enforcement personnel. Even the better pay this year has not greatly blunted the turnover. Larger agencies such the Salt Lake City Police Department pay more, so officers move there from agencies with less fiscal capacity.
“It’s like they’re just walking through revolving doors,” he said. “The people that remain are going to the highest bidder and the smaller cities are suffering.”
But Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, applauded the Gwynn bill as a good way to address the overall retention problem.
“We have trained officers who are not coming back,” she said. “We are just holding people back from earning more money. It’s very frustrating for law enforcement right now.”
Adams’ study included a section on “leavism” — ranking reasons why police and firefighters want to get out of public safety. Wages topped the list for both police and firefighters, followed by political support, retirement and benefits. For police, “negative media portrayal” also was ranked high on the list.
Both police and firefighters surveyed were not as troubled on the topic of community support.
“We do know we feel we are supported by the community,” Gwynn said. “We are aware of a vocal minority, but it is a vocal minority. But officers are very leery of their administrations and elected officials that run their municipalities.”