Pension reformfelt as U Police hire more cops

Jesse Weisbeck

Though it only takes a couple of weeks for retiring University Police officers to leave, it can take up to six months to get new recruits fully trained. And officers say this can make for a shortage of experienced officers patrolling the campus.
By March, the University Police will be training eight new officers. The high number of new recruits is, in part, a result of increased retirements fueled by an aging force and recent pension reform.
“Normally, we slowly replace officers like restocking a forest, but this time it was like a clean sweep. And now we have to replace a good part of the forest,” said University Police officer Eric Swanson. “We are really running on a low capacity right now.”
In the past two years, eight officers have retired and two more are scheduled to leave soon.
The increasing retirement rate might be attributed in part to pension reform passed by the state legislature last July. The Public Employee Retirement Association, to which many University Police officers belong, is a nationwide pension benefit organization with state chapters. The group drafted the changes and helped pushed them through the legislature.
University Police officer Jay Allen, an association member, has been with the University force for 32 years and plans to retire in about two months.
“The increase in pension is great,” Allen said. “It probably had somewhat of an influence, but I think it influenced several other (police) departments as well.”
The change allows officers to receive benefits out of their pension funds shortly after they retire.
Under the organization’s old plan the main chunk of the pension benefits came several years after retirement.
“We believe that our members would value it more if they could get the same pension benefits at age 60 than at age 80,” said Martin Kvidera, a business research analyst for the organization. “We shifted their pensions so that they would be in better standing at retirement.”
University Police Chief Joy Rikala said that the pension increase has had an effect, but added that it hasn’t compromised the safety of the University.
Rikala said the optimum number of police officers on campus is 41. In 1993 the University had 32 officers. Now, there are 36.
But Rikala and Police Capt. Bruce Troupe said departments all over Minnesota are dealing with shortages of experienced officers.
“There will be a lot of hiring statewide,” Troupe said.
Four of the University’s 36 officers are in training, which means they don’t patrol alone. Instead they work with a coach for several months.
Swanson said the discrepancy in age between new trainees and older officers can be a precarious situation. Training new police officers takes significant effort, he said.
“Sometimes we only have two officers patrolling the campus,” Swanson said. “Patrol tactics become limited with a shortage.” Allen agreed.
Swanson said when only two officers are on patrol, there is a reluctance to get tied up in self-initiated situations. For example, officers are sometimes reluctant to pull someone over because they have a responsibility to be available for other calls.
Rikala said that although two person patrols happen occasionally, the station is never understaffed.
“We are filling the positions as fast as we can,” said Troupe. “We’re facing the same issue as other police agencies.
But Swanson said training new officers isn’t that easy.
“It’s not like training them to use a fryer,” Swanson said. “It’s going to be three to five years before you’ll feel really comfortable with that officer.”
After an exhausting background check, new hires attend one month of classroom training before hitting the streets. Then they work with more experienced officers for three to four months, learning various tasks.
Rikala said that replacing retired officers with several new ones at one time is not unusual. The same thing happened in the 1970s, she said.
Troupe conceded that there will be a significant, yet not unusual, turnover in personnel.
Board of Regents member David Metzen said he wasn’t worried about the situation.
“I’m confident their administration can handle it,” he said.