NEW BEDFORD — The city’s police union said its officers are underpaid and overworked; the police chief said it has been difficult to hire and retain officers; and an independent arbitration panel said New Bedford’s officers are paid less than some comparable communities.
The discussions, which were part of recent contract negotiations, took place as departments across the country are struggling to hire and keep officers, according to a police research and policy institute that surveyed nearly 200 departments in 2021.
“All you gotta do is Google police hiring and retention. It’s in every newspaper throughout the country,” said Police Chief Paul Oliveira, in an interview with The Light. “They beat up the profession over the last couple of years and now they wonder why nobody wants to be a police officer.”
Oliveira explained by “they” he means “the media first and foremost,” noting news organizations have “taken all the pride and prestige” out of the profession.
“The media… really beat us up. And then the legislators went out and put a ton of restrictions on police … They’ve really hurt the profession,” he said.
Resignations have increased since 2014, according to data provided by NBPD. The department saw the greatest number of resignations in recent years with 15 last year. So far in 2022, five officers have resigned, seven have retired and four have been hired.
The number of new hires has gone up and down over the years, though some hires have since left, confirmed public information officer Lt. Scott Carola.
NBPD had no resignations in 2014 and 2015, but starting in 2016, resignations increased with the exception of 2018, according to the data provided by the department.
Asked if he thought relatively lower wages are factoring into personnel issues, Oliveira told The Light it is possible, but he couldn’t say yes or no. He also said he was unaware of how New Bedford ranks with wages among other communities.
“When we have officers leaving now after 20 years on the job, 25 years on the job, that obviously isn’t a money issue,” he said.
Oliveira, who joined the department in the early 1990s, said he is seeing New Bedford officers leave at a rate he hasn’t seen before, and that it’s mostly early retirements with a mix of new hires leaving for other departments or officers leaving for other professions.
Policing garnered national attention following the shootings, and in some cases murder or manslaughter, of Black Americans by white officers in recent years. The events sparked more scrutiny from both the public and the media, though reporters have critically covered policing before and since such events as it relates to officer and department conduct.
Regarding policy changes, Gov. Charlie Baker in December of 2020 signed a police reform act, which established the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission (POST). One of POST’s purposes is to hold all law enforcement officers in the state accountable through the investigation and adjudication of complaints against officers.
The commission also has the authority to certify and de-certify officers, as well as discipline them in response to misconduct.
A group of law enforcement unions and associations is currently suing the commission, alleging it established new rules that limit law enforcement without open public meetings as required under state law, GBH News reported.
Joining the ranks in New Bedford
To become a New Bedford police officer, a person can take two paths: become a cadet with NBPD or go straight to the civil service exam (cadets eventually take the exam, too, but they get preferential treatment during the hiring process).
After passing the exam and being selected by the NBPD, a candidate will be sent to a monthslong training academy run by the Massachusetts Municipal Police Training Committee (MPTC).
For both paths, Oliveira said the department has seen a decline in candidates.
Civil service exam applicants who claimed New Bedford residency preference nearly halved — dropping from 200 in 2017 to 104 in 2021, according to data provided by NBPD. Carola said this number represents applicants who passed, failed or did not show up to the exam.
Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said without a doubt many departments are facing problems attracting recruits.
A former NYPD officer in the 1980s, O’Donnell said there are high levels of dissatisfaction, and like Oliveira, attributed some of it to media coverage and police reform undertaken by state legislatures.
“Nothing was said about [the profession] that wasn’t negative,” he said. “Now, in this environment where anything police officers do can be looked at under a microscope … it’s a new dimension.”
O’Donnell said the profession is now “radioactive.”
Mayor Jon Mitchell in a statement to The Light said at a recent conference with more than 30 U.S. mayors, all but one communicated their city was struggling to hire police officers.
“Officer pay has become less competitive amid a hot national labor market, but the broader, more troubling explanation has been the recent decline in the esteem in which many younger adults now entering the workforce hold the profession,” he wrote.
“In order for America’s cities, including New Bedford, to provide the security that their residents expect, it will be incumbent on everyone to reinforce the notion that policing is a noble calling.”
According to data from the state’s police training committee, enrollment for its training program for NBPD has gone up and down over the past decade.
The Light requested an interview with state training committee employees to discuss any changes to the number of recruits over the years, but a spokesperson said its personnel rarely give interviews to news media because they are focused on delivering training to recruits. The Light then submitted questions by email, which a spokesperson declined to answer.
For those who make it to the training academy, it’s not necessarily a hire that the department can count on, as some candidates are dropping out during the academy or even before it starts.
For the current academy that started in January, NBPD had 20 candidates with intent to join the department at the end of training. Before it started, six candidates dropped out. Then, while the academy was underway, another five withdrew, leaving the department with nine, according to Oliveira.
He said the candidates cited personal matters, or the academy cited personnel matters, meaning they weren’t fit for service.
Mark Leahy, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, also pointed to media and public attention as factors in these reported hiring and retention issues. He made a point of noting, though, that some departments locally and nationally are having success attracting recruits.
NYPD, for example, saw a 20% increase on average in daily applications in 2021 compared to previous years, the Marshall Project reported.
About 225 uniformed officers currently serve NBPD. Oliveira has a goal of reaching 255, though he couldn’t say exactly how he would get there, nor could he recall the last time the department reached that level.
The department still has the same amount of officers out on the street, and day-to-day operations are not affected, said Oliveira. However, fewer officers means forced overtime, which he said is concerning and “not best” for officers’ mental health and wellness.
The department is looking into potential partnerships and initiatives with the Greater New Bedford Regional-Vocational Technical School, Bristol Community College and UMass Dartmouth to attract students to the job.
The department also started work this year with consultant Jensen Hughes — a firm that has reviewed police departments across the country, including the Louisville Metro Police Department in Kentucky, where officers fatally shot Black medical worker Breonna Taylor in her home.
Oliveira said the consultant firm asked him about hiring and retention, though it is also focused on other areas of policing during its monthslong review.
“Maybe they can hopefully come up with some remedies to make it better,” the chief said, adding he feels helpless at times. “I lose sleep over this, I really do.”
Police pay in New Bedford and similar cities
At the close of contract negotiations, the arbitration panel wrote the police union “correctly observes” that New Bedford’s police officers are among the lowest paid of the comparable communities, which the panel viewed to be Fall River, Lynn, Taunton, Lowell, Lawrence and Brockton.
Before New Bedford officers were ultimately awarded retroactive 2% pay increases for 2018, 2019 and 2020 last month, a new officer working the day shift had a base salary of $47,820.88, according to the department. That figure included holiday pay and firearms qualification pay, but did not include additional pay for working nights or having a college degree, among other possible pay add-ons and overtime.
Following the wage increases, the new base pay for a new hire working day shifts is $50,977.53.
While this is the base, officers can earn more per year by working night shifts, overtime and police details. With the new contract, New Bedford police officers will earn $54 an hour working details like roadwork or community events.
An officer’s salary can also increase by thousands depending on her or his education level. In New Bedford, if a patrol officer has a bachelor’s degree in a law enforcement field, she or he gets an additional $6,450 yearly, per the new contract. In Fall River, an officer receives a 10% salary boost for the same degree level.
The Fall River Police Department said the base salary for a new hire, including holiday pay, is $60,012. The Herald News reported last May that the starting salary was $50,830, but Fall River Lt. J.T. Hoar said that figure did not include holiday pay and that the salaries have since been adjusted following a collective bargaining agreement.
Hoar said for education incentives, officers receive a 5% increase for an associate’s degree, 10% for a bachelor’s degree and 12.5% for a master’s degree in a criminal justice field, which would be added to the $60,000 base.
New Bedford officers can receive an additional $3,300 to $12,000 depending on degree level and rank in the department rather than a percent increase.
The Taunton Police Department pays nearly $58,700 for a first-year patrolman, said Lt. Glen Jackson, public information officer. Education incentives for Taunton police are 15% for an associate’s degree, 20% for a bachelor’s degree and 30% for a master’s degree.
The city maintained Taunton is not a comparable community, but agreed Fall River is, according to the arbitration document.
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