After eight years with the Dallas Police Department, Kenneth King headed west earlier this year in search of a better life.
He didn’t have to go far. King is one of eight officers who in recent months have joined the Fort Worth Police Department, where his base salary is $62,000 a year — about $11,000 more than he earned in Dallas even with overtime.
But it’s not just the greenbacks; the pastures are also greener in Fort Worth, he said. “I felt like the morale at DPD was at the lowest I had seen it.”
Several others making the jump to Fort Worth also cited low morale and lousy pay in Dallas.
They aren’t alone in their discontent. In a Dallas Police Association survey last year of 1,279 members — about a third of the 3,500-member department — 80 percent rated morale “low” or “the lowest it’s ever been.” And 354 said they were looking for jobs elsewhere.
Some who have left, including King, said they liked their jobs and co-workers in Dallas but not the top commanders. City officials, including Mayor Mike Rawlings, have acknowledged the low morale as attrition this fiscal year is expected to near a 10-year high. They say they want to fix the problems to keep good cops in Dallas, and Chief David Brown has recently been working with police associations to change policies that many officers detest.
Assistant City Manager Eric Campbell, who oversees the Police Department, said in an email that city leaders need to find “creative and innovative ways to keep our … officers engaged and safe.”
But he said many other urban police departments face the same problem.
Houston is one of them. Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland lamented at a recent news conference that the 5,200-officer department lost 252 officers in 2014, and losses for 2015 are running at about double that rate.
Houston pays its officers at least $45,000 a year after their first year on the job — roughly the same as Dallas. Cities near Dallas pay far more. Plano, for instance, pays $66,000 after the first year.
Dallas police officials say 129 officers have resigned, retired, been fired or died so far this fiscal year. They estimate that 217 officers will be gone by October. That would be, by two, the most lost in a single fiscal year in the last decade.
Most of the resignations are from officers with less than five years of experience. Nearly all have less than 10 years of experience. Officials have considered charging recruits if they quit too soon, because the city invests time and money to train them.
Sheffie Kadane, chairman of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, said officials need to do “whatever we can” to keep officers. Dallas Police Association president Ron Pinkston said pay needs to be more competitive.
“The city of Dallas can’t afford to lose these talented officers,” he said.
Police are set to hire 165 officers this year; if the estimate of 217 losses proves correct, the force will shrink by 52 — 12 more than expected.
Brown said in an email that he has been making an effort to recognize the “appreciated and valued” officers. The chief has also tweaked the foot chase policy, to officers’ delight, and allowed them to use their stun guns more freely. He is also addressing other concerns, such as the length of internal affairs investigations.
Karla Garbelotto, who joined the department in 2009 and left in 2014, said it was Brown’s firing of Officer Jesus Martinez that prompted her to leave for Fort Worth.
Martinez said a panhandler swung at him in Deep Ellum, prompting a fight. A cellphone video showed Martinez, apparently blinded by his own pepper spray during the confrontation, sitting on top of the panhandler, pushing the man’s arms over his head while he cried out.
Many in Deep Ellum who had had run-ins with the panhandler rallied around Martinez after the firing.
Garbelotto said she didn’t know Martinez personally but related to his situation.
“I didn’t want to be fired for doing my job,” she said. “It could have been any one of us. That’s a pretty common call — a belligerent panhandler. You never know how the suspect is going to react.”
Brown said he has a responsibility “to address our errors when mistakes are made and complaints are received … while doing our best to not crush an officer’s desire to serve.”
Alex Everett said he left for the Round Rock Police Department in 2014 for similar reasons: “The god-awful pay, all the pay cuts, the terrible health care and all that stuff.”
But Everett, 31, wasn’t satisfied there either.
“Unfortunately, coming from Dallas, I was used to answering all the gang fights, the shootings, the stabbings — all the craziness of the big city,” Everett said. “In Round Rock, being a small city, I got bored pretty quickly.”
Everett is joining the Austin Police Department. He said he will start at around $72,400 a year after earning about $46,000 a year in Dallas.
He said he also believes the leadership will be better there than in Dallas.
“When you’re more scared of your department than you are of the guys you’re dealing with, there is a problem,” he said. “The job itself was fun. But the department — it ruined the job.”