Memphis City Council members gave final approval Tuesday, Sept. 15, to a freeze on the city’s deferred retirement program in an effort to bolster police ranks and keep the force from dropping below 2,000 officers.
The freeze option is open to 280 city employees, 178 of them police officers. Under what is known as the DROP program, they can remain on the job for up to three years and announce their retirement date in advance.
Those who take the freeze can go back to work for the city for up to two years and maintain health insurance coverage on the city’s plan, which would be the primary motivator for the employees.
The 7-5 council vote on the proposal by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton came after plenty of council debate, including questions about how effective the freeze would be in beefing up police ranks.
The goal is a police complement of 2,400; the police force now stands at 2,092 officers by the administration’s latest estimate.
The freeze debate is a continuation of the council’s larger year-long deliberations on cutting city employees’ health and pension benefits.
Wharton has acknowledged that the cuts have played a role in the loss of police officers, and about 200 more cops are scheduled to retire in the next two years. But he’s defended the cuts as necessary to pay for the city’s unfunded pension and health insurance liabilities.
The leaders of the police and fire unions oppose the freeze and argued that it will lead to frustration among the rank and file. Those officers could be blocked from long-delayed promotions because the supervisors whose jobs they would get are the majority of those eligible for the freeze.
“We can freeze this baby until hell freezes over,” said Memphis Fire Fighters Association president Thomas Malone. “It’s not going to work.”
Memphis Police Association vice president Essica Littlejohn told the council that patrol officers would leave in greater numbers than the supervisors who take the freeze because of the block on promotions.
“It will stifle morale,” she said. “They are losing their motivation. This is going to hurt the majority of officers.”
Memphis Police Department director Toney Armstrong has told the council that there are enough open slots for promotions to create opportunities for rank and file officers.
But councilwoman Wanda Halbert was swayed to vote against the freeze Tuesday when the administration said only 15 of the 178 police officers in DROP are patrol officers.
“This process is not going to achieve that,” she said. “I’m ready to vote this thing down.”
Meanwhile, the administration announced Tuesday it was preparing what human resources division director Quintin Robinson termed a “massive succession planning process” to be done by an outside consultant.
“We will double down on our effort,” Robinson added.
That caused several critics of the freeze to accuse the administration of coming up with a long-term plan that should have been in place before the city cut pension and health insurance benefits to employees and retirees.
Council member Alan Crone said the city is dealing with “complicated issues of personnel management.”
“These decisions are all being considered independently when they are related to each other,” he said. “When we attack these things in an ad hoc fashion they often have unintended consequences. And we end up having to come back and respond to those unintended consequences and I think this is one of those things.”