With most of Minneapolis's police force just a few years away from retirement eligibility, it could leave the state's largest city with a shortage of officers by the end of this year.
The Minneapolis Police Department is aging. According to department numbers, 64 percent of its officers are age 40 years and older. About 15 percent of its officers are 50 and older.
This year, 43 officers have reached the age where they can retire with full benefits. That number is projected to double next year.
Police Chief Tim Dolan wants to add new officers to keep up with the department's retirement rate. The city council votes today on a proposal to hire a dozen police recruits.
The maturity of the department is evident by the graying temples of the newly promoted lieutenants who Dolan recognized at a ceremony held earlier this week at City Hall.
At 47, Lt. Giovanni Veliz has plenty of company among his fellow officers.
After the ceremony, Veliz chats outside the council chambers with friends and coworkers. He is a 20-year veteran of the force. Veliz says retirement is something he and his wife, Dawn, frequently discuss. He can retire in eight years, when he is 55, and receive full benefits.
"Daily, weekly, monthly... one of the things I feel very fortunate is our health — we're very healthy," Veliz said. "Number two, I still enjoy doing what I'm doing right now."
Veliz is trim and looks like he could still chase down a 17-year-old suspect if he had to. Although his new job is mostly an administrative post, Veliz can be called to assist officers on the street at any time.
WHEN CAN AN OFFICER RETIRE?
But there is a growing number of officers who are reaching an age where they can retire before 55 and still collect benefits, Dolan said. Officers are required to retire at age 65.
Officer can retire between 50 and 55, but do so with a penalty to their benefits — 1.5 percent for each year before they hit 55. Many officers do not wait under this plan to get to 55, Dolan said.
Earlier this week, Dolan informed the city council's budget committee of the growing number of officers reaching retirement eligibility. He said the department's attrition rate — the number of officers who leave for any reason, including retirement — is also going up.
"We see attrition due to medical reasons, now especially with an aging workforce, we're seeing that more and more, unfortunately," Dolan said.
There are very few positions available on the department for officers who can't perform physical tasks, he said. That's why injuries and illness force some officers into retirement.
Dolan wants the city council to approve a request for $400,000 to rehire a dozen officers in training who were laid off several years ago. The money would come from the police department's budget surplus from last year.
Without new hires, Dolan said, the number of sworn officers will drop to well below its budgeted level by the end of this year. The number of sworn officers is projected to fall from 850 to 827. The department's budget includes funding for 843 officers. Since 2008, the number of sworn officers has fallen from a peak of 916. During that same time, reported violent crime levels have also consistently dropped.
The officers Dolan wants to bring back are Community Service Officers. They are not sworn police officers yet, and have not been licensed by the state. But the city has already spent tens of thousands of dollars to educate and train them, Dolan said. And if they're not rehired, Dolan said it will take more time to prepare a new group of recruits.
"After our 2003 layoffs it took us a good year to get that pipeline going and working the way we all want it to work. Good quality candidates, with diversity and with a preference for people that are from Minneapolis and this metro area."
OTHER DEPARTMENTS FACE SAME PROBLEM
Minneapolis is not the only aging police department in the state, said Neil Melton, executive director of the Minnesota Peace Officer Standards and Training board, the state agency that certifies police officers.
"You mention Minneapolis. That same theme is echoed over and over across the state from large agencies to small," Melton said.
Minneapolis is also not the only police department with its own farm system for new recruits, Melton said. Community Service Officer programs are a good way to find diverse police officers who already know the territory where they'll be working. But Melton said Minneapolis could also hire some of the more than 1,000 currently licensed officers in the state looking for work. But most departments in the state just aren't hiring, he said
"We roll over about five percent of the state's 10,000 officers every year. It's been slower the last couple years, I think, because of the economy," Melton said. "Officers who thought they might retire decided, 'I'm going to stick around for another couple years.' "
The growing number of Minneapolis police officers willing to retire might be another indicator that the economy is gaining strength. Dolan said officers may also be influenced by recent changes to the department's pension plan, which gives better benefits to most retirees.