Bleeding Blue 

click to enlarge news36_lede_police_100.jpg

Sinking morale and a widening divide between Henrico County police officers and the county administration are dogging a department that for years has been considered the region's gold standard in law enforcement, according to an internal departmental survey recently obtained by Style Weekly.

The survey, conducted late last year, is an unofficial follow-up to one conducted in 2000. It shows more than 65 percent of the 287 officers in the Henrico County Division of Police who took the survey are actively seeking other employment opportunities. Among the force's most experienced and largest age group, 31 to 40, more than 75 percent said they were looking for new jobs.

Many officers, in anonymous comments compiled in the report, angrily complain of pay and benefits that have failed to keep pace with inflation or other nearby localities.

"Our health insurance is a joke, our retirement is even worse," one writes.

"The division is in crisis," writes another.

The department's division of police grants and survey coordinator conducted the survey, according to the report's cover page.

Henrico's police chief, Henry Stanley Jr., says the author is a captain working toward a master's degree in police administration, and that the report was part of the captain's graduate project. Neither Stanley nor the report identifies the captain.

In summarizing the report's findings, its author writes that "with over 65 police officer vacancies and 64 percent of all survey respondents seeking employment elsewhere, the Henrico County Division of Police must change in its recruitment marketing, in its retention policies and attitudes, and in its compensation of police officers."

Historically, Henrico police officers have been among the most vocal critics of the county's health care benefits package. The department's police officers were especially vocal when county administrators negotiated the county's change to a new health care provider, Southern Health Service Inc., about five years ago.

Henrico's human resources director, George H. Cauble Jr., dismisses the survey and its results.

"I'm not sure how valid it is," Cauble says, indicating that he's only marginally aware of the report's existence. He said he was unaware that the report had circulated within the department as any sort of official document. "I didn't do it, I haven't read it," he says. "I thought it was done as part of a school project -- I don't think this has a whole lot of validity."

Despite consistent criticism from police and other county public safety officers that come forward during nearly every county budget cycle, Cauble defends Henrico's record in offering a competitive benefits package.

"We lead the region in pay, we lead the region in benefits," he says. "Our career development plan is more aggressive and accelerates faster than anyone else's."

Starting salary for a Henrico officer is a little more than $40,000, compared with neighboring localities rates of between $38,000 and $39,000, Chief Stanley says.

Stanley's less dismissive than Cauble of the survey, though he too says its findings should be taken with a grain of salt. "I have to say that the (survey's) questions could be interpreted in different ways," he says. But "these issues that were brought up, they concerned me."

Stanley says he worked hard during the recent budget cycle to address the concerns the survey brought to light.

Among successes he cites are a 4.8 percent increase in pay, the addition of another pay grade at the end of the county's stepped pay scale and an expanded career development program. Overall, he says, "I think we made a heck of an accomplishment."

But issues remain, say elected officers of Henrico's chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. The small steps the county took toward improving pay will not end the problem of slipping morale, they say.

Nor does the county fully address the problem of how to retain veteran officers frustrated that they're often making thousands less per year than rookie officers with no experience, according to rank-and-file officers who remain dissatisfied.

The FOP held an open house at Hermitage High School Aug. 6 to gauge the mood of its membership and their families. More than 200 people attended. The most suggested course of action from the members polled during the event was that the FOP take the matter to the Henrico Board of Supervisors.

"We're hearing it regularly, the problems that exist," Henrico FOP President Shawn D. Maxwell says.

"The feeling is that nobody cares," said one officer, asking to remain anonymous because, like Maxwell, he's an active officer.

Others are less shy about speaking out. Reese Haller is the immediate past president of the FOP, a candidate for the Varina district's Henrico Board of Supervisors' seat and as of two years ago, a retired Henrico police officer.

"Unfortunately this is not the first time we had issues from the administration," Haller says. "And having been in the police department for 26 years and president of the lodge for 10, it's not the first time these same issues have come up."

The department's "morale is at an all-time low," Haller says, and at the end of the discussion, "it's all about health care. Health care is a big, big issue."

The employee survey provides evidence. When asked about health insurance, 94.1 percent of respondents said their expectations had not been met by the county's plan — up from less than 50 percent of respondents seven years ago. In comments, officers often cited the cost of insurance as why they're seeking other employment.

But Cauble, the county's human resources director, says this problem isn't as big as it's being made out to be. He insists that insurance rates for the county are the lowest in the region.

He's nearly right, depending on what level of insurance an employee chooses. Under the county's premium coverage for a family (employee, spouse and children), costs the employee $477.42 per month, or $5,729.04 a year. In Hanover, by comparison, that same plan costs $430 per month, or $5,160 a year.

Haller says he wonders why, with Henrico's greater numbers and arguably better bargaining power, it's unable to negotiate better insurance rates for employees.

Henrico County has a general government workforce of more than 4,000 employees. By contrast, Hanover has just under 1,100 general government employees. Both, beginning in January, will use the same health care provider, Southern Health. HR directors for both counties say their rates will stay at or near the same as the rates currently posted.

"You take a starting police officer whose starting pay is less than $40,000 a year and you add in a wife and a couple of kids and a mortgage … and he's right in line for food stamps and government assistance," Haller says. "I hear that only 9 percent of county employees have [full] family coverage."

Cauble was unable to provide statistics on what percentage of county employees use which plan.

"Henrico County is the fourth-largest employer in the Richmond area and you'd think we could do better with our health coverage," Haller says. "I just don't know what the answer is, but apparently somebody's not asking the right questions to get it fixed." S

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