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FairfaxNewsVienna officials confront denuded police ranks

Vienna officials confront denuded police ranks

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The Vienna Police Department is short about one-fifth of its full complement of 41 sworn officers and the ones who remain wish to be compensated better.

During a April 12 public hearing on the town’s proposed fiscal year 2022 budget, Sgt. Kristin Ruddy, who is president of the Vienna Police Association, said the department is “facing a personnel crisis” with eight officer vacancies and frequent turnover.

Only five of 18 officers hired by the department in the last five years are still with the agency, amounting to a 28-percent retention rate, Rudy said.

“Because we want to keep our hiring standards for competency high, a lack of competitive pay and benefits, a pay scale that limits our ability to compete with other benchmark agencies and the national aversion towards law enforcement have all manifested into the heart of our crisis,” she said.

The police department’s morale is poor and has been for “many years” before the pandemic, Ruddy said.

“We’re losing exceptional officers at a rate we cannot sustain – and there are more coming this year,” she said.

Vienna, like jurisdictions across the state, has seen fewer people apply to become police officers in recent years, said Town Manager Mercury Payton.

Since he arrived in 2011, the number of police applicants has dwindled by about half, he said.

Salary competition from neighboring jurisdictions is part of the cause, said Payton, who added that smaller localities such as Herndon have “gotten creative” in their recruitment of police applicants.

The Vienna Police Department currently has three officers in the Fairfax County Criminal Justice Academy and was slated to hire two more April 14, said Police Chief James Morris.

“It’s an ever-flowing system,” he said. “The problem we run into with police work is, the day we hire you, we won’t see you on the street for nine months.”

Police officers qualify for retirement earlier than most town employees, so some turnover is common each year. The Vienna Police Department is staffed with a mix of younger and older officers, with some of the latter hired after retiring from other law-enforcement agencies.

Recent years have been a hard time to be a police officer in America, with highly publicized use-of-force incidents prompting protests and efforts to reduce funding for law enforcement.

“There has been a national narrative at play over the last four or five years or so,” Payton said.

Council member Howard Springsteen, who long has been affiliated with the Vienna Volunteer Fire Department, suggested the town could implement a separate public-safety pay scale, as Fairfax County has.

“Whether it be police or fire, it’s a unique career challenge and by having yourself laid out for 20 years with certain [pay] increases, it makes it a fairly stable career,” he said.

Police officers’ work differs from that of Town Hall employees and should be considered separately, agreed Council member Ray Brill Jr.

While the Council has the latitude to change the town’s pay scales at any time, that process should done “methodically and thoughtfully,” Payton said.

The town manager did not recommend any such initiative before the Council approves the town’s fiscal 2022 budget on May 17, but said such a proposal could be entertained this summer and fall.

Separate pay scales for public-safety and general town employees might cause morale issues, cautioned Payton, who does not favor the concept.
Safety should be Vienna’s top priority and this will require the town to attract and retain good police officers, said Mayor Linda Colbert.

It is highly expensive to replace departed officers, so considering a more attractive pay structure is a pressing need, Brill said.

“I don’t think that we can wait to do it in a normal time frame,” he said.
Council member Steve Potter favored forming a committee to consider police pay, but in a “slower, more disciplined fashion.”

Council member Charles Anderson said Chief Morris had convinced him the town needs a separate public-safety pay scale.

“To have an effective and community-oriented police force that avoids the problems that other jurisdictions have [had] in the past is to have the best cops and the best people with the best judgment,” Anderson said.

But Council member Nisha Patel said that according to information given to the Council, many Vienna police positions paid better than average compared with other jurisdictions.

“I don’t think there’s any urgency here,” she said.

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