By Chip DeBlock

Having just retired after a 30 year career in law enforcement and being a co-founder of the law enforcement website LEOAFFAIRS.COM, I always find myself being asked for advice on picking an agency to work for.  My primary motivation for writing this article, however, is talking with young people fresh out of college who don’t have a clue on how to select an agency.  Since this decision will affect them for the rest of their lives, I’ve decided that memorializing this information and placing it on the internet for free is the best course of action for everyone.  Whether you’re a college graduate, recruit from the police academy or a seasoned officer looking for a new home, I hope you will find this article enlightening.

For starters, it’s not everyone’s calling in life to become a law enforcement officer (LEO).  In addition, there are simply not enough jobs to accommodate every applicant, qualified or not.  Of the jobs available, not all are equal in pay and benefits.  If the candidates know what they are doing in applying for LEO jobs, the best jobs should go to the best candidates.  The remaining jobs are filled from who is left in the pool.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, as there is a strong argument that the most skilled deserve to get the jobs with the best pay and benefits.

When looking for a job you’re typically going to know what you’re interested in.  Whether you’re willing to relocate and where you’re willing to live are good things to know up front.  Unless you’re not picky, it’s best to carefully research and plan what agencies you’re going to apply to.  If you get accepted by an agency and then turn them down to wait for another, you’re likely not going to get a second chance.  When you do sign with an agency, it’s not unusual for them to require you to sign an affidavit swearing you will remain employed with them for a set number of years without going to another agency.  After all, they are putting time and money into your training.  The most important considerations in selecting an agency involve pay and benefits, especially when you consider that law enforcement officers have a decreased life expectancy due to the job.  Here is the short list of what to look for:

1.  Pay

2.  Step Plan

3.  Deferred Compensation Plan

4.  Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP)

5.  Pension (Vesting, Min Age and Multiplier)

Since plans and benefits can change from state to state, there could be an offering under a different name that is equivalent to one of the above.  You need to understand why each of these is important and how they work.  I’ll utilize pertinent information from my former agency and the state of Florida in order to provide a comparison for the reader, so please read below:

Pay is important, but not the most important factor.  Also take into consideration the local cost of living and the history of the agency providing a Cost Of Living Adjustment (COLA) to its sworn and retired members.  Determining the local cost of living for an area can be determined by utilizing such sites as NUMBEO.COM and AREAVIBES.COM on the internet.  The Tampa Police Department (TPD) in Florida pays a P-1 (new hire) police officer $24.14 an hour which is $50,211.20 their first year.  The agency has not given employees a COLA raise for the past 5 years; however, they just signed a labor contract granting them a 2%, 2.5% and 3.5% COLA raise over the next 3 years (year 1 reflected in above salary).

Step Plans are disappearing, but important if you can find them.  They essentially offer you all but guaranteed salary increases (in addition to any COLAs) every year over a specified period of time.  Think of Step Plans as an apprenticeship, a way of providing you with additional pay as you gain experience until you reach full salary in your position.  The Tampa Police Department has an 11 year Step Plan for police officers, with Step 11 giving them a designation of Master Police Officer along with one stripe on their sleeve.  There may also be performance requirements, minimum evaluation scores, etc in order to attain an increased Step level.  If you are getting a COLA too, then you will be getting two raises a year as long as you are in the Step Plan.  Here’s the current Step Plan for TPD P-1 police officers (plus COLA raises for fiscal years 2015 and 2016):





























































So an officer entering his career at Step 1 in 2014, after one year, will be entering Step 2 in 2015 with a Step increase of exactly $1.00 ($22.75 + $1.00 = $23.75) plus a COLA increase of $0.59 ($23.75 + $0.59 = $24.34).

Deferred Compensation Plans are a type of retirement plan offered by your agency that allows you to set aside money from your paycheck towards retirement.  After you retire you can draw from it if you need more than what your pension and Social Security offer you.  You don’t pay income taxes on this money (or earnings) until you retire and/or begin making withdrawals, so it can lower your taxable income.  You can accumulate hundreds of thousands of dollars this way.  With TPD you can enter the Deferred Compensation Plan right away but they do not withdraw Social Security from your paychecks.

Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP) is offered by states and agencies for law enforcement officers, fire fighters, teachers and others.  Between a set number years of service you are eligible to enter the DROP in which you technically retire but are allowed to keep working at full pay for a limited time.  You stop earning service credit toward a future benefit and, because you are technically retired, your retirement checks are invested for you until you exit DROP (in which case your retirement checks will start going directly to you along with the accumulation of any DROP monies plus interest).  This is another opportunity for you to save hundreds of thousands of dollars, in addition to your pension/retirement, before you leave your agency.  The Tampa Police Department allows you to enter the DROP after 20 years of service but you cannot remain in the DROP after 30 years of service.  You can also only remain in the DROP for up to a maximum of 5 years, but you can leave any time prior to that if you wish.  So the best bang for your buck is to DROP at 25 years of service and remain employed until you have 30 years on.

Pensions are another benefit that is disappearing for the law enforcement officer.  Here are the five (5) most important components of pensions to be concerned with:

1.  Vesting & Age – how long you must work for an agency before you are entitled to receive retirement benefits and at what age.  With the Tampa Police Department you must work 10 years before you are vested and be 46 years of age before you receive pension benefits.

2.  Longevity Retirement – how long you must work for an agency before you are entitled to collect retirement benefits immediately upon retiring despite your age.  With TPD it is 20 years.

3.  Maximum Service – the maximum number of years it takes for you to reach the maximum retirement benefit (i.e. 100%).  With TPD you can obtain 100% of your pay in retirement after serving approximately 31 years and 9 months.

4.  Multiplier – the percent of your pay you receive for every year of service.  With TPD it is 3.15% and your pension is based upon your highest 3 years of earnings out of the last 10.

5.  Funded Ratio – the value of assets in the pension plan divided by a measure of the pension obligation.  There is a belief that 80% funding is a healthy level, but the target should be 100% or greater.  The Tampa Firefighters and Police Officers Pension Fund has a funded ratio of about 90%.  With pensions disappearing due to pension reform, this is an important consideration.

So let’s incorporate these factors and do the math concerning your pension options.  We’ll assume you work for TPD and, after 10 years, you’re making $75,000 annually with 2% yearly COLAs after that and 8% return on any DROP monies.

       Scenario #1: You’re 21 years old when you start working and you stay 10 years before you retire, so you’re vested.  Since you are now 31 years old and this is not a longevity retirement (you did not stay 20 years), you must wait 15 years before you can start collecting pension checks at the age of 46.  Your pension benefit will be 31.5% of $75,000 or $23,625 annually (plus any retirement COLA benefits after you turn 46).

       Scenario #2:   You’re 41 years old when you retire after 20 years, making $90,000.  This is a longevity retirement so you can start collecting your pension checks right away.  Your pension will be 63% of $90,000 or $56,700.

       Scenario #3: You’re 52 years old when you retire after 31 years and 9 months making $106,500.  This is a longevity retirement enabling you to immediately start collecting 100% of your salary.

       Scenario #4: You entered the DROP at 25 years of service and you’re now fully retiring at 51 years old with 30 years of service.  This is a longevity retirement and you collect right away.  Your salary when you entered the DROP was $97,500 and your salary when you stopped working 5 years later was $105,000.  Your pension check will be based on figures from when you entered the DROP, so your pension check will now be .79% of $97,500 plus 5 years of COLAs or $84,727.50.  That’s not all.  Your accumulated DROP monies over a 5 year period will amount to approximately $566,133.75.  So you get a yearly pension check of $84,727.50 plus a lump sum of $566,133.75.

It should be noted that while Scenario #3 provides you with $21,772.50 more yearly income than Scenario #4, it would take you just over 26 years to save up the $566,133.75 in DROP monies (from the extra money you receive in Scenario #3) that Scenario #4 gives you.

You will chose from working for city police departments, county sheriff’s offices, state agencies and federal agencies.  City police departments tend to have more due process meaning you can contest discipline and firings.  They can also offer private pensions, 401k plans and the like.  Sheriff’s departments can be political and you serve at the will of the sheriff.  You also might have to start your career on the corrections side before trying to move over to the patrol side.  County and state agencies will commonly place you in the state retirement system.  Pay with state agencies is not generally too good.  Federal retirement could be better and they have to relocate a lot, but they can line up some good second career jobs.  It all depends on how long you want to work.

Other benefit considerations not covered in detail are promotional considerations (upward mobility), the availability of overtime, the amount of vacation and sick time, the buyout of unused vacation and sick time when you retire and paid holidays.  If the agency has a DROP plan there will be a lot of promotional opportunities because sworn members are forced to retire by a certain time in order to take advantage of it.  DROP plans and longevity retirements with lower time limits also help keep the age of active officers lower.

One thing is for sure, don’t enter this career for the wrong reasons.  A career in law enforcement is something you should do because you love it, not because of pay and benefits…your life might depend on it!

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