Jonesboro Public Safety committee hears police salary, retention issue

by Michael Wilkey ([email protected]) 419 views 

The issue of salaries for the city’s 157 police officers was front and center Thursday (May 5) as a Jonesboro City Council committee heard complaints over the issue.

The Public Safety Committee voted to create a committee made up of council member Mitch Johnson, Police Chief Rick Elliott, Finance Director Suzanne Allen, Human Resources Director Dewayne Douglas and two to four patrol officers to find a solution to the issue.

Jonesboro police Lt. Nathan Coleman told the Public Safety Committee that the issue has been debated more than two years, with Fayetteville-based Johanson Group looking at police salaries and a city salary and longevity committee looking at all city employees put in charge of looking into the issue.

Coleman said the department lost 21 officers in 2015, with 20 more looking to leave. The year before, 17 officers left, Coleman told the committee.

“The response was ‘let them leave.’ I was told that to let them leave and that no one would remember who they were in six months,” Coleman said.

Coleman said the city has lost 100 officers since 2008, citing numbers he said he compiled from city officials. The issue has been at the forefront since about two dozen officers left their patrol cars at the Jonesboro Municipal Center April 25 in a protest over officer salaries. An internal investigation by police led to two supervisors this week being suspended for three days without pay for their role in the protest.

Coleman said the city is training officers, with recruiting officers, equipment officers and a city-run police academy to help with preparing officers. Jo Carol Carter told the committee she left the Jonesboro Police Department in 2011 to become a registered nurse.

“It is a tough job,” Carter, who said she suffered numerous injuries including facial injuries while on the job. Carter said she left the job due to the stress and pay.

“$30,000 is not enough,” Carter told the committee.

Committee chairman Mitch Johnson said the issue has reached critical mass, with a solution needed quickly.

“We cannot afford to lose another officer. We cannot worry about what goes on outside Jonesboro. We have to worry about what is going on in Jonesboro,” Johnson said.

Police Chief Rick Elliott said he is concerned with the issues addressed at Thursday’s meeting. Elliott, who began with the department in 1992 as a patrol officer, said step-raises based on years of service were removed in the mid 1990s, taking away a plan to provide funding for officers.

Elliott said it would take $1.2 million to address longevity and compression pay needs while no figures are known for providing holiday pay and use of a take home car. The average officer makes $32,600 a year with incentives available for graduating from the academy, having a college degree and knowing a foreign language, Elliott said. The issue of retention is also a problem, but Elliott said the city will go through two or three officers before settling on an officer.

“It is a calling. There are some who say you might be crazy to work in a job like this,” Elliott said.

So far this year, 16 officers have left the department. Elliott said three officers left this week to join the Arkansas State Police and two others went to work for the Arkansas State University Police Department. The rest have either quit, been terminated or have gone back to school.

Twelve new officers are scheduled to begin next week, with the department looking to hire about a dozen more in June.

Elliott said crime rates have fallen about 14% in recent years due to officers working the streets and providing good equipment.

“I want to say that we provide better equipment than anyone else in the state. We just want the pay to do the same,” Elliott said.

Elliott said the key issue of finances are crucial, with no clear decision so far from the council’s Finance Committee and the salary committee.
“Whatever the plan is, we need to get something in place,” Elliott said.

A 2011 FBI report showed that U.S. towns should have a sworn officer to population ratio of 2.4 per 1,000; and a 3.4 per 1,000 ratio for full time employees. Jonesboro has a 2.16 per 1,000 ratio.