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During the 2008 legislative session, Republican Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland, has continued his annual assault on police officer retirement benefits.
House Bill 202, sponsored by Dougall, is a disturbing bill that seeks to alter the retirement benefits of law enforcement officers. This bill is opposed, as a priority bill, by the Utah Law Enforcement Legislative Committee.
Dougall’s bill is especially troubling as it can be described as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. His bill includes a provision that would allow a police officer entering employment to choose to retire after 30 years or after a 20-year career.
The incentive is that the officer can elect to receive a higher salary if he chooses the 30-year plan. This is troubling on many levels.
Having been a police officer for approximately 17 years, I can say that there are very few officers starting out in their careers who fully recognize the value of and need for a 20-year retirement. It is not until later in one’s career, after the initial excitement of the job has worn off, that the importance of one’s retirement benefit becomes clear.
Further, considering the current level of starting salaries for police officers in Utah, the promise of extra money to a young adult starting a family will likely be too much to pass up. This despite the ultimate long-term benefits of the 20-year retirement.
I am not sure what segment of our population is clamoring for a bill that lures officers into working longer careers. There are many reasons why police officers should qualify for a 20-year retirement.
In addition to the obvious dangers of suffering an injury or a violent death in the line of duty, there are the less-considered physiological and psychological hazards. On a day-to-day basis, police work can be a dehumanizing profession that immerses its practitioners in the most violent and dishonest segments of our society.
Routinely responding to emergency situations, experiencing hostile encounters and working ongoing shift work all contribute to elevated stress levels for police officers. Over the course of a career, the physiological and psychological toll that this takes on officers should not be underestimated.
Is it any wonder that it has been estimated that suicide rates among police officers are close to double that of the general adult population? Within just the past few months, I am aware of the suicides of two veteran officers here in the Salt Lake Valley.
Last year, in response to Dougall’s House Bill 377 (also directed at public employee pensions) A Salt Lake Tribune editorial described the Utah public employee pension plan as a “thoroughbred: a rock-solid, high-performing $17 billion fund that will carry retirees through the home stretch of their lives.”
Where is the need for a bill seeking to alter a pension system that works? If police officers are not being paid adequately, then this should be addressed without altering the pension system and taking advantage of young adults embarking in a new and exciting career.
Few police officers can afford to truly “retire” after only 20 years and many officers must work well past that benchmark. However, being eligible for retirement at 20 years assures a police officer and his family a return on his having survived 20 years in a truly hazardous profession.—
* JOHN COOPER is a police officer in the Salt Lake Valley and has worked in the profession for just under 17 years.