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Covington Police Struggling to Fill Ranks

On Tuesday, the Covington city commission is expected to approve the hiring of Vid Krull, Jr. as a police officer, and also to accept the resignation of police recruit Detrick Johnson.

Currently, the Covington Police Department is budgeted to employ 114 officers, but its numbers stand at 110. Further, that current staffing level does not reflect the number of officers equipped to patrol the city's streets.

The number does not reflect recruits headed to or already in training at the police academy at Eastern Kentucky University, or officers who are off for injuries.

"At any given time, I'm really running with 100 to 104 officers," said Police Chief Rob Nader.

Another problem looming over the police department, like so many other municipal agencies across the region, is changes to the state retirement system. Certain changes made to the state system this year are making current officers consider when they decide to take off their badges for good. Particularly, survivorship benefits are impacted, with a significant change coming January 1. 

The change in retirement pay could result in the loss of hundreds of dollars a month for officers who decide to stick around.

Many are weighing a departure from the industry.

"Now everyone is looking at their numbers and say they have to go," Nader said. "They are doing it for their families."

Nader said he knows three current officers will retire this fall. The number could be as many as five, he said.

Meanwhile, another impact to the hiring process is the academy itself, Nader said. When a new recruit is brought on, that future officer must be placed at the academy where there aren't always openings. In fact, there are no openings now until January, the chief said. For Krull, who is set to be hired Tuesday, Nader said he had to hire him two months early in order to secure a spot in the state training program.

That means officers like Krull are put on the payroll without being able to conduct police work on the streets. "I can't use them. I'm paying them. I can't put him on the street as an officer," Nader said. "I'm hiring people two to three months early just to secure a spot."

Then, once at the academy, training lasts for twenty weeks. Then, once training is completed, an officer does administrative work for sixteen to twenty weeks, Nader said. "If an officer retires tomorrow, it takes me forty to fifty weeks to replace them," he said.

City Manager David Johnston said more than just the police department is being impacted by the concerns over retirement benefits and remaining employed by the city government. "We've heard it from Rick Davis, our public works director who retired, and a couple firefighters who retired," Johnston said. "That little change, they would lose between $150 to $250 a month, and it would take two to three years to work just to make up the difference to today's rate, not the future rates."

"It benefits them if they have the years to qualify for full retirement to retire now and that's what they are choosing, only for that reason."

"That puts a service issue with our department to make sure that we are meeting the needs of our citizens 24/7," Johnston said.

But Nader said the issue is different for the police department when compared to the fire department, which handles its own training program and can usually fill positions opened up by groups of retiring firefighters. "It's much harder to replace a police officer," Nader said. "Right now, a police officer is a hot commodity. All chiefs are trying to get their manpower."

One particularly attractive type of officer is one that can be hired directly from another agency, often referred to as "a lateral hire." But with so many police departments crammed into Kenton and Campbell counties, the competition is stiff. "I would say we are all competing for laterals, we are all doing the same thing," Nader said. "We are pulling from the same population."

"We can't replace them in a timely fashion and that is frustrating," Johnston said. "What we are seeing from some of our suburbs is, they are hiring retired police officers. I wouldn't be surprised if one of our officers who retired work for one our suburban departments. They can pay a higher starting wage and they don't have to pay into benefits or the retirement system."

"We'd love to hire some laterals or retirees but we have competition for that retired police officer with our suburbs who can pay higher."

Another issue, the chief said, is there are fewer people showing up to take the test to be evaluated as a potential police recruit. Two decades ago, he said. 250 to 300 people would show up to take the test. The last time Covington offered the test, only 78 turned up, Nader said.

"Out of those seventy-eight, we are lucky if ten make it," Nader said. Polygraph tests, background checks, physical evaluations, and drug tests doom some applicants. "We fail a lot of people."

Nader said, though, that the safety concerns of Covington residents will continue to be met. "From a patrol perspective, you won't see much change. We'll keep our minimum (patrol officers) and we'll use overtime to have adequate manning on the street," he said. Detectives and narcotics officers, though, may be on regular patrol more frequently than handling their regular, more specialized duties, he said, "until we get our manpower up."

"We may not follow up as quickly as we could if we had the proper staffing," Nader said.

The city is working to figure out how to make the job of Covington Police officer more attractive for potential recruits or lateral hires.

"(For a retired officer) we can take some of that (benefits and retirement) expense and transfer it into salary expense," Johnston said. In fact, Covington currently has three retired officers back on the force, Nader said.

But still, "This is a young man or woman's game now," Nader said.

"All I can say is, we're going to be looking at this issue at all sides. We're just starting," Johnston said. "It's only because of this change (in the state retirement system) that all this is happening in the last two, two and a half months. It's amazing."

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher