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Philly cops are defunding themselves

Demoralized, stats show police are quitting their jobs in record numbers

police
Philadelphia Police stand off against protesters during the summer of 2020. | Image: Wave Lane

Anti-cop critics may not have to actually “defund the police.”

Philadelphia police are depopulating their own ranks in an unprecedented dash for the doors.

More Philadelphia police officers have put in for DROP this past year than in any year in the past decade, except for one, which indicates deep dissatisfaction in the ranks.

In 2020, 135 officers filed for retirement, trailing only the 159 officers who put in for retirement in 2018. 

However, 114 cops put in their papers in January 2021 alone, a number that is greater than the total for most years. The combination of 2020 and January 2021 totals a record of 249. If January is a harbinger, 2021 will shatter all records.

There are about 6,300 sworn officers on the force, plus 800 civilian employees.

What’s driving most of the fleeing cops out of a job they used to love is a sense of betrayal. I’ll get to that in a minute. 

DROP is the taxpayer-funded, controversial Deferred Retirement Option Plan. In exchange for picking a retirement date no more than four years in the future, the city worker gets a six-figure payoff at retirement, in addition to a regular pension.

Some officers perceive a lack of respect for police and a lack of support for police from the public and from their own department.

– Ron Stagliano

Introduced under Mayor Ed Rendell, the pension-plus program was designed to: a) cajole city workers into retirement; b) entice invaluable veterans to stay on a while; c) provide the city with a predictable schedule of retirement; d) all of the above.

DROP enablers say d). 

Things went seriously wrong when the program, designed for employees, was glommed by elected officials – hel-lo City Council – for whom it was never intended. Even worse, receiving the massive DROP payout required an “irrevocable” promise to leave. Many politicians took the money, “resigned” for a day, and then returned to their jobs. 

That’s why it was controversial, and after years of debate, angry editorials and even angrier newspaper columns, loopholes for the political class were closed, blocking elected officials from carving up the Golden Goose.

Many of the officers who now have enrolled in DROP will be leaving in about four years. Most are counting the days.  

The number of officers who have recently signed up is “well above average,” said Ron Stagliano, an elected labor trustee on the pension board. He spent most of his 33 years on the force with the detective bureau.

So many cops put in for retirement, there was a rumor in the ranks that DROP enrollments were suspended until March. That was denied by Fran Bielli, executive director of the pension board, who provided the retirement statistics used here.

The root of the rush to retirement, said Stagliano, 70, was the George Floyd protests/riots, organized to condemn police brutality. Mixed in with these national protests by Black Lives Matter were local progressive groups often demanding defunding police. In some extreme cases, such as Minneapolis, elected officials actually voted to dismantle the police department. 

Image: File photo

The Minneapolis Council was OK depriving their constituents of police protection, but in a display of rank hypocrisy, they hired private security for themselves when they felt threatened. Council President Lisa Bender said – are you sitting? – calling 911 when your home is broken into “comes from a place of white privilege.” No, this was not satire. 

“Some officers perceive a lack of respect for police and a lack of support for police from the public and from their own department,” said Stagliano.

I asked: From their own department?

“Correct.”

In an email statement, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said many departments, not just Philadelphia, are experiencing “significant increases” in officers leaving the force, “not entirely unexpected given the year that we’ve had.”

Due to high levels of civil unrest, demands to defund the police, and staffing shortages caused by the pandemic, “officers of all ranks and experience levels have been tasked with working long hours in often hostile environments.”

All this has “damaged morale,” but Outlaw said officers “have my unwavering support during these difficult times.”

Since she seems to understand the problem, she ought to understand the remedy: City leadership standing firm in support of good cops, who are the majority. And she, personally, needs to turn her words into deeds and better connect with those she commands. 

Stagliano spoke on the record for attribution because, as an ex-cop, he does not fear retribution.

With help from him, and others, I reached a half-dozen active officers who had filed papers for retirement, and DROP. 

Image: Unsplash

Since they remain on duty, they feared possible retribution and asked for anonymity, which I granted them. I also altered a few biographical details to protect their identities. The first name I use for each is not his real name. 

In the words of Blake, a 32-year veteran who is turning in his gun and his badge, “I didn’t sign up for this.”

Meaning what?

The contempt and the disrespect, he told me. He sees himself as someone who goes into the community to protect and serve, yet is viewed by many as an alien aggressor.

The community takes one bad action by one bad cop and magnifies it into everything done by all cops, he said. 

“I don’t need constant pats on the back,” he said, “but I’m not going to put up with being spit at.”

A native of South Philly, Louis has spent half of his 50 years on the Philadelphia police force, but he sort of stumbled into it. He had a good job in wholesaling, but joined a friend who was taking the police department entrance exam.

“He said it was a good job because of job security and the pension, and the next thing you know, I was a cop.”

The father of two spent most of his time in the narcotics bureau, “trying to get young people off the street, but it’s almost impossible,” he told me. 

“The fact is you keep arresting the same individual over and over – not petty crime, I’m talking violent offenders – people with a history of violence…I’m now locking up the children and grandkids of people I locked up 10 or 20 years ago,” he said.

“If you have whole families involved in crime, why wouldn’t you try to fix that? That’s the D.A.’s job. My job is to arrest them. Their job is to convict.”

If you have whole families involved in crime, why wouldn’t you try to fix that? That’s the D.A.’s job. My job is to arrest them. Their job is to convict.

– Louis

Louis complained of the “lack of respect, both within the department and from the community. 

“And now, with the D.A.’s office,” he said, “Larry Krasner just does not trust any police officer in the city. I don’t want to get locked up and fired just for doing my job.”

Louis mentioned Police Inspector Joseph Bologna, who was fired and prosecuted for assault by the D.A. for actions during a melee. Charges against the former high-ranking officer were tossed at a preliminary hearing in January, but the vindictive Krasner said he planned to refile charges. An email seeking comment was not answered by Krasner’s office. 

As I talked to the cops, I remembered something I first heard from Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson. 

“Each day you put on the badge, you may save a life, take a life, or give a life.” It’s an awesome responsibility.

When Charles was young, he interrupted college to satisfy his taste for adventure by joining the military. Now approaching 60, this father of four traded one uniform for another thinking, “I could be a half-decent cop. I think I can do something about the crime problem.” He said it was “kind of like being a superhero.”

He can’t believe that any more.

“I feel the department is at a crossroads,” he said, “and is not being true to the core tenets of policing.”

Cops are supposed to go after criminals, he said. 

“That’s what we do, hold the line against criminal activity.” Doing that is “a contact sport” and arresting someone who does not want to be arrested is sometimes not pretty, and the officer gets judged by a snippet of videotape that might not show what caused the officer to use force.

“Society wants us to be able to arrest people, to disarm people and bring a chaotic situation to heel with a few magic words, with no fighting and no discord. That will never be,” he said. 

“Society doesn’t understand that police officers are reactive,” he said. 

“We must give away the first punch, the first shot. If you act first your actions are being called into question” by superior officers who may never have worked the streets. 

He scoffed at City Council’s recent ban on “non-lethal” tactics such as tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets.

“When the bricks start flying and people are getting hurt, what are we going to do?” he asked.

Mark is a little over 50 with a little more than 20 years on the job, mostly in patrol in Center City and Southwest. 

“Everyone’s against us. No one has our back,” he told me. 

Mark has a college degree, and sort of drifted into police work after working for the judicial system.

“No one condones what those jackasses did in Minnesota,” and elsewhere. 

“No one condones it, but we have to pay for it,” he said.

“A lot of guys I know are not going to do the DROP,” he said. 

“They think they are going to get zinged by Kenney” in the new contract this summer, so they’re going to split. 

“Morale is terrible across the board.”

Mayor Kenney’s office said it could not respond to an email request for comment before press time.

At 50, Bob has 25 years on the job. Married, with kids, the native of the Northeast became a cop because he wanted to help people and because he has pride in his hometown. 

They put cops in a no-win position. And Krasner puts more effort into arresting cops than into getting illegal firearms off the street.

– Bob

Before moving into investigations, he enjoyed being a street cop because “every day brings a different challenge and you may be able to make a difference in somebody’s life.” 

He had no intention of retiring, “but after the events throughout the city over the protests, the lack of support that was expressed for the police by the leadership…”

Which leadership?

“The city officials, meaning the mayor, the district attorney, and, quite honestly, the police commissioner herself,” said Bob. 

“They put cops in a no-win position. And Krasner puts more effort into arresting cops than into getting illegal firearms off the street.”

Morale is at an all-time low, he said, and he doesn’t expect anything to change.

“You used to know coming to work you could rely on upper management. At this point in time, it doesn’t appear that way. It’s failed leadership from the top, and when that happens, the cops are demoralized.”

And when that happens, they leave in record numbers, which they are doing now.

Stu Bykofsky served the Philadelphia Daily News as an editor, reporter and columnist for nearly 50 years before retiring in 2019. He now publishes at the centrist stubykofsky.com. Follow him on Twitter @StuBykofsky 

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  • Stu Bykofsky served the Philadelphia Daily News as an editor, reporter and columnist for nearly 50 years before retiring in 2019. He now publishes at the centrist stubykofsky.com. 

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