Jeff Jardine

Police officers are free agents, available to the highest bidder

Reporter Kevin Valine’s story in Sunday’s Bee about how the Modesto Police Department plans to hire experienced officers away from other area law enforcement agencies explained and exposed a reality about policing in 2016.

The departments with more money can hire away officers from those who pay less, and right now Modesto has more to offer.

The city, he reported, will dangle a bonus carrot of $10,000 to sign on plus $5,000 more if the officer sticks around for five years. That is on top of a big pay raise of up to 11.5 percent for officers and detectives along with other incentives that will go into effect in January. It will hurt the smaller organizations or those that can’t afford to match the offers, and in a sense turn them into farm clubs for Modesto and other departments who can, like it or not. And there is little they can do to prevent it if the money and opportunities are right.

Officers, to many departments, are not only members of their communities but also investments. They’ve helped recruits through the academy and in many cases gave them a start in their law enforcement careers. Those officers come to know their cities, the people, and the crime patterns. Some departments even have created decks of trading cards as a way to familiarize residents with the men and women in blue in their cities.

But, like some professional sports franchises, some departments are “small market” teams that can’t afford to pay the bigger salaries and therefore cannot compete with the bigger city departments. Nor can they contractually bind officers with long-term contracts that prohibit them from going to other agencies.

Despite being government work, law enforcement is a free-market occupation. Officers can go to another department whenever another wants to hire them for more money or better promotional opportunities, which also translates to more money. And if an officer can do so without having to sell a home and relocate the family to another city, that makes switching departments even more lucrative.

Indeed, law enforcement officers are free agents. And now, here come the Yankees – or in this case the Modesto Police Department – offering higher salaries and better signing bonuses in an attempt to rebuild its staff by cherry-picking quality officers from other departments, and with no form of compensation to the cherry-picked other department.

When Detective Adam McGill left the Ceres Police Department to join the Modesto force in 2001, Ceres simply had to go out and hire a replacement. It got no compensation from Modesto in return. Seven years later, when McGill went from Modesto to become the police chief of Newman, Modesto simply had to go out and hire a replacement. Newman didn’t wet Modesto’s beak. When McGill left Newman to work for the U.S. State Department as a police adviser in Iraq, Newman had to go hire a new police chief. Again, no finder’s fee. And when his 18-month stint in Iraq ended and he became the police chief of Truckee, the State Department got no compensation draft picks from Northern California’s coldest winter city. Each of his moves represented a new assignment built on the expertise he’d gained from his previous jobs.

That is the way it works.

The agencies that can afford to hire away experienced officers from other agencies will do so. Modesto can treat other departments like its farm teams – and as Modesto learned when it lost 18 officers to agencies over the hill, the Bay Area departments will treat the Modesto Police Department similarly.

It’s gamesmanship, indeed.

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