Byers' Beat is a weekly column written by the I-Team's Christine Byers, who has covered public safety in St. Louis for 15 years. It is intended to offer context and analysis to the week's biggest crime stories and public safety issues.
ST. LOUIS — Police department leaders across the country are saying they’re having a hard time finding officers – and the competition to do so locally is getting pretty cutthroat.
This week, the St. Louis County Council passed an amendment to the collective bargaining unit that will allow officers from any other department to join the county police on a "1 for 1" pay deal.
The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department was the first to make this move just weeks ago.
Police and union leaders I’ve spoken with see this as a direct threat to the city’s already dwindling force.
That’s because an officer with 10 years of experience with the city police department can go to the Jefferson County or St. Louis County police department and get paid at the level a 10-year officer is paid at those departments – and that means thousands of dollars.
If they have their 20 years in, they can go to either county and make higher salaries while drawing from their pensions.
St. Louis Police Officers’ Association President Jay Schroeder told me he has 17 years with the city’s department and gets paid $68,000. If he were to leave today and go to the county department, he would get a $15,000 raise.
The only thing keeping him on the city’s roster is his pension. He’s just three years away from earning it.
But for those officers who are experienced, and especially those who have already reached their 20 years of service, Schroeder predicts they will be leaving in droves.
“People with under 10 years can leave and make a pretty substantial pay raise,” he said. “We’re just not competitive enough to keep people here.”
St. Louis County Councilman Tim Fitch retired as the police chief in St. Louis County in 2014.
He said he voted to approve the "1 for 1" pay deal even though it could hurt the city’s ability to retain and recruit officers. The vote was unanimous.
“The county like all agencies in the country have had a hard time recruiting officers, so one of the pieces of low hanging fruit is experienced officers,” he said. “You have to encourage them to retire or leave their current agency and the vast majority of cases they will receive a significant boost in income by coming over to the county.”
Fitch said he doesn’t believe the county and Jefferson County’s programs have to hurt the city.
“What I think you will see is complete gutting of the city police department as a result of this,” he said. “We’re responsible for the people of St. Louis County, and there is nothing stopping the city from raising their pay, there’s nothing stopping them from having a similar program, nothing stopping the city from making officers feel like they want to spend their career there and have support from the community and elected officials."
St. Louis County Police Association Executive Director Joe Patterson agrees.
“There is no question St. Louis Countians want more good police officers on the street. With recruiting efforts of new officers being more challenging, we must attract and incentivize experienced officers from other departments to join our ranks. This effort is not meant to cause harm to other police departments, but it should serve as a wake up call that those departments need to better treat and compensate their officers if they want to keep them,” Patterson wrote.
On Monday, Mayor Tishaura Jones cited a 2020 study that looked at how the city police department is structured when I asked her what her plan was to recruit and retain officers, given that 102 have already submitted their walking papers so far this year.
“(The study) showed that St. Louis actually has enough officers, they just need to deploy them in the right way,” she said. “And so we have been looking at our deployment strategies, along with the Center for Policing Equity, to make sure that we can deploy our officers in a smarter way and also making sure that we're deploying our alternative responses.
“So we have Cops and Clinicians and we have a diversion program that takes a little bit of that burden off of officers responding to every call.”