Lawton police officers want the City Council to increase pay for officers already on the local force before implementing plans to hire new ones.
The union, whose membership voted Oct. 13 for impasse in contract negotiations between the City of Lawton and the union, has been in contract talks with the city since spring. Like city firefighters, members of the police union are working under last year’s contract until a new contract can be approved (and a vote on a possible contract was held this week).
The vote by members of the International Association of Police Associations, Local 24, for impasse meant the union had agreed there was no reason to continue contract negotiations and would submit the issue to arbitration, said Lt. Brian Shotts, vice president for Local 24. But that vote was never submitted to the city and Shotts said the vote didn’t mean the union wasn’t willing to negotiate.
Union members, like many members of the public who have taken to social media to air their complaints, argue that the City of Lawton has the funds to pay for raises for current officers: the 2015 Sales Tax Extension, a $101 million sales tax initiative that has allocated more than 60 percent of its revenues to public safety initiatives, including pay raises for current police officers and firefighters. Funding also was included to add 18 new police officers and 12 new firefighters (something the Lawton Fire Department already is seeking because Chief Dewayne Burk says the personnel are needed to man the new Station No. 8 to be built in southwest Lawton).
But Shotts and Sgt. Mike Porter, the police union’s secretary/treasurer, said it makes more sense to improve the pay for current police officers to stop the hemorrhage of long-term officers to other police departments that pay better. Until that happens, the department will never meet full manning levels, they said, noting that once pay for current officers meets the statewide median, the department then should consider adding new personnel.
“Keep the good people we’ve got and then draw in new applicants,” Shotts said.
Porter said simple mathematics will explain why the department is constantly losing trained officers.
Union officials have investigated pay in other departments and Porter said they selected the Oklahoma Highway Patrol as the median, the “department” that represents a pay mid-ground. OHP’s starting salary in year one is $44,664, compared to the $31,000 at which Lawton officers start. OHP pay increases to $70,000 in the trooper’s seventh year; a comparison for Lawton Police Department wasn’t available at press time.
Porter and Shotts said the pay issue is what led to October’s impasse: The union wants pay raises, while the city has consistently offered incentives, additional pay that would be given a year at a time. Shotts said the city also has said it wants to bring the department to full manning levels, then give pay raises, something the union said isn’t possible because low pay is chasing off experienced officers and discouraging new ones from applying. He and Porter said the position violates the spirit of the 2015 Sales Tax Extension, noting the city promoted that tax as a means of providing pay raises for those, already on the job, hiring new officers, and providing a new public safety facility. None have been done.
“That’s a sore point,” Shotts said, noting the officers have seen their insurance increase and can expect to see that happen again. “It’s hard to swallow.”
Porter said Lawton is losing experienced officers to other departments, when the goal should be to keep experienced officers on the streets while recruiting new ones.
The men are critical of city offers of incentives, saying the city can’t guarantee those incentives will continue in the next pay year. There is another problem with incentives: They cannot be calculated into retirement pay because they are not permanent (retirement incentives are based on the last 30 months of pay that an officer receives). There also are fears that if incentives are offered each year rather than salaries, officers will remain at the same salary. If voters do not renew the tax when it expires, officer salaries have not improved, they said.