Over the course of 2016, the Chester Police Department lost about 25 percent of its staff and six more detectives were set to leave by Jan. 1, 2017. In Jan. 2016, as in previous years, the total number of the department hovered around 102.
According to city officials, 17-20 employees left over the course of the year but Chester officials announced late Monday that five cops were promoted from the patrol division to the detective squad.
In a late afternoon statement, city spokesperson Aigner Cleveland issued a press release saying in part that city officials, “have been strategically looking at feasible ways to reassign and redeploy manpower within the department to fill needs,”
Attributing the statement to Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland, it claims the city has enough money in its 2017 budget to fully-staff a 106-member police force and is anticipating hiring other patrol cops to fill vacancies left by the promoted detectives.
Newly-promoted detectives are Capt. James Chubb (27 years of service and the senior member of the department); Jamison Rogers (six years of service); Rhaheem Blandon (seven years of service); Steven Byrne (10 years of service); and Brian Pott (six years of service). All but Chubb were corporals in the patrol division. Chubb was a patrol captain.
Returning detectives are Anthony Polites (18 years of service); Joseph McFate (17 years); and Victor Heness (16 years).
Most departures, especially the recent ones, were due to the expiring Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) contract and the Deferred Retirement Program (DROP). Employees knew what their contractual benefits were until Dec. 31 and were wary of the uncertainty of the terms of a new contract in 2017.
The exodus came at an especially inopportune time since crime tends to rise during holidays. During an interview about a shooting over the holidays, Chester Police Chief James Nolan estimated the crime spikes anywhere from 10 to 20 percent.
According to the Delaware County dispatch website, there were four incidents of EMS being dispatched for gunshot victims from December 24th to January 1st and Delaware County’s first violent homicides of 2017 have already occurred in Chester.
“We are doing what we can, with what we have. The issue we have now is we are in a transition phase. We were unprepared for an exodus of this type at this time,” conceded Nolan. “Folks were scheduled to retire over a longer period of time. Due to the breakdown of labor negotiations, they chose to leave now. We have to lean on the DA’s office and they are being helpful. We have to (reallocate) our manpower to reflect the changes, but we couldn’t do that until these people were off the books,” added Nolan last Thursday.
City officials analyze a promotional list comprised of police officers who meet a certain criteria for promotion on an annual basis. For the past several weeks, City Council members and police officials have been interviewing candidates from the list to the fill the vacancies.
“They are not taking their entire DROP time since they are going into a contract year. They are choosing to leave knowing what their benefits are. Most are cutting it short. That’s why we are a bit unprepared. We were preparing for them to leave in a year, two or three. The fact they are leaving now sped up our replacement strategy,” said Nolan.
In stark contrast, Chester Mayor Thaddesus Kirkland told a local TV station last week, “We’re not short-staffed. We knew that there were officers going to retire, so we simply redeployed some of our officers. We do have 72 able bodied police officers who are capable of doing the job and who are doing the job. So I’m very confident in their abilities.”
Chester currently has eight cadets (an additional two are in police field training) enrolled in the Philadelphia Police Academy and are set to graduate this month. Upon graduation they will fill vacancies for patrolmen.
The city has posted a number of ads for patrol officers and positions within the police department, on the city website and in a newspaper.
“There are a number of detectives leaving. We do have replacements on the way and we do have training programs set up to bring them up to speed. Will they have the same experience? No,” commented Nolan. He mentioned training programs with the district attorney’s police academy instructors who who work for CID, and other training throughout the year including crime scene investigation and homicide investigation training.
“There are things in place to make sure we can do what we can to protect and maintain a safe and operating police department to serve our constituent base and make sure the residents are safe,” said Chester spokeswoman Aigner Cleveland.
The city also maintains a DROP program for Police Pension Fund participants. The DROP allows eligible officers to elect distribution of the monthly benefit, which is placed in an interest bearing account, and remain employed. The DROP results in increased costs to the city because officers continue to earn higher salaries and longevity payments than their replacements would receive. There are also administrative costs for administering the DROP. Participation in the DROP is limited to three years.
The benefit to the employers, especially a police department which has specialized functions and requires training, is it gives time to replace employees. The benefit for employee is they end up with a lump sum of their pension money saved for them while they are still working.
Each cop who has completed 25 years of service and who has attained age 50 is eligible for “normal retirement.” The normal retirement benefit is equal to 50 percent of the average monthly W-2 earnings of the officer during the 12 months immediately preceding retirement.
A cop retiring is also entitled to an additional benefit of $100 per additional year of service upon completion of 26 years of service. Members contribute five percent of their pay. The plan also provides for early retirement after 20 years of service, regardless of the officer’s age, and a disability retirement benefit.
Employees participating in the Officers & Employees Retirement System are eligible for full retirement at age 65 and are 100 percent vested after five years of service. A voluntary early retirement is also available after age 55 and 10 years of service. The pension benefit equals 1.65 percent times average compensation (three latest years) multiplied by the years of service (up to 30 years).
In 2016, the department averaged 4,900 calls for service per month.