Louisville Metro Police has seen a big drop in applicants, but why?
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Tyree Williams and Aaron Thornton have dreams of wearing the LMPD blues. We caught up with the recruits while learning the art of the arrest at the department's academy recently.
"It's a noble profession," Williams said. "Most kids growing up want to be police officers and take part in this profession that not everyone can do."
Even still, the department is having trouble attracting recruits and some fear more problems are coming with that.
"I lived in different areas that there's always a lot of bad stuff going on and the best way to help them is by putting on a uniform," Thornton said.
Both say job security is another reason for wanting to be an officer, but what about security after their time on the force is over? Retirement for Aaron and Tyree -- and other new LMPD officers -- has become much less certain.
Over the last decade, police officers across Kentucky have watched their benefits dwindle, slicing health insurance and boosting the minimum time for retirement from 20 to 25 years. The biggest blow came two years ago, when the Kentucky legislature, in an effort to deal with a pension crises, wiped out pensions for all public employees and replaced them with a 401K-style retirement plan.
"There was a certainty there that -- you know -- this is the way that it is now, but I know that I'm going to have what I need when it's time to retire," police union president Dave Mutchler said. "Well, you've kind of pulled the rug on that. That's not there anymore."
Mutchler, who represents the Fraternal Order of Police, says uncertainly has caused many to think twice about joining LMPD. He says where the department used to have thousands of candidates to pick from, now the pool is just a fraction of that size.
"With the stringent requirements and background checks, it's hard to find...40 or 50 people out of three or four hundred applicants that you want to hire," Mutchler said.
Mutchler said it's a possibility some on the force would have been rejected in years past and there "absolutely" are officers within LMPD who are unfit to wear the badge.
LMPD Chief Steve Conrad says the number of applicants has plummeted by as much as 25 percent in just the last two years, but he says that "absolutely" hasn't affected the caliber of officer LMPD accepts.
"Pre-merger we didn't require 60 hours of education. We do today," Chief Conrad said. "They go through strict backgrounds, they go through polygraph testing, they go through psychological testing, they go through physical testing. We get people that really want to come to the job, that really want to serve, that really want to make a difference."
Chief Conrad admits it's going to be a challenge to get new officers to stick around after five years when they're fully vested in the new retirement plan. Mutchler says the issue is further complicated by officers retiring early as many have done in the wake of shift changes and what he described as a nationwide negative sentiment toward police. He fears a storm is coming.
"You lower your standards, eventually that can catch up to you because it leads to any number of things," Mutchler said. "It leads to bad behavior, it can lead to criminal behavior, it can lead to lawsuits, it can lead to all kinds of things."
Louisville Democratic State Representative Jim Wayne says this is exactly what he was afraid of when he voted against the pension reform. He says the replacement retirement plan is nothing like what it was made out to be.
"The studies by the Pew Foundation we found out to be distorted," Wayne said. "They basically manipulated the information and that propaganda then filtered into the leadership in the House and the governor's office and they believed them."
Wayne says another pension crisis is looming because money officers had been putting toward supporting other officers' retirements is instead going to the new investment plans. His solution includes higher taxes on wealthier Kentuckians, which he says would generate an extra $600 million to $800 million a year.
"When you put that together and use at least half of that new money to support the pension systems, over time they can be sustained," said Wayne.
Louisville Republican Kevin Bratcher, who voted in favor of pension reform, says he's willing to consider a re-do.
"If the policemen and the first responders and emergency personnel are not getting enough qualified candidates, all phases of compensation need to be looked at -- including a pension plan," Bratcher said.
It's a step that may need to be taken to keep quality candidates like Tyree Williams and Aaron Thornton coming through the door.
"If we don't do something to make sure we can continue to recruit qualified applicants, somewhere down the line we're going to pay for that," Mutchler said.
Kentucky State Police and Louisville Fire both say they have seen no drop in the number of applicants.
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