DANBURY - After two years as a Danbury police officer, John Schmidt felt his career was at a crossroads.

While he enjoyed working in law enforcement and got along with his colleagues, Schmidt was fed up with the continuous griping about working conditions, equipment and the lack of a contract between the police union and the city. In addition, he and his wife were tired of the cold New England weather. So in December, he contacted some former Danbury officers now working in Florida. "I got nothing but glowing reports about what it's like to be a cop (there)," he said. In the past several years, at least five Danbury officers, including the 30-year-old Schmidt, have turned in their badges and taken jobs with law enforcement agencies in Florida. As the
Danbury Police Union
begins its third year of working without a contract, the trickle of officers who have left for what they see as greener pastures could turn into a flood. "(We've) been informed that a half-dozen officers are considering possible lateral transfers to Florida departments," said Danbury police spokesman Capt.
Arthur Sullo . With the department already 10 employees below its authorized strength, the departures are costing the city some of its most talented officers, union officials said. "We're talking about people who are state-certified instructors, SWAT members and a former Officer of the Year," said
Mike Georgoulis , vice president of the Danbury Police Union. "They're (losing) the cream of the crop." Law enforcement journals are filled with help wanted ads from police agencies in Florida, where both the population and economy are booming. In addition to the warmer climate and a lower cost of living, many Florida departments offer competitive salaries, state-of the-art equipment and training and a more lucrative retirement package. "It's all new and modern," said
Paul Grohowski , who became a cop in Port St. Lucie about three years ago. "I saw a better place for my family to go. There's just a better quality of life there." Most Danbury cops make between $42,000 and $53,000 a year, not including overtime. Even though Grohowski took a pay cut when he first moved, within three years he will earn $10,000 more annually than he would in Danbury. "Law enforcement in general has become a highly competitive field," said Danbury Police Chief
Alan Baker . "You hate to lose experienced, seasoned officers, but our loss is some other community's gain, just as it's our gain when we hire an experienced officer from somewhere else." While a certain amount of turnover is expected in any profession, Danbury Police Union officials say the latest departures are spurred by discontent over a stalemated contract situation and concerns about staffing levels and working conditions. Though plans for a new police station are on the drawing board, the current building on Main Street has more than 140 officers in a facility designed for a fraction of that number. Officers say there are chronic shortages of basic equipment, such as computers and typewriters. As a result, tasks such as processing suspects can be frustrating, the union claims. Union president Tony Maher described an incident several weeks ago following a strong-arm robbery of a roadside vendor on Route 7. "We had five suspects, as well as two other people who were arrested for unrelated incidents in here at the same time. There was one typewriter in the booking room, and there were a lot of cops standing around waiting to use it. How is that efficient?" he said. Before leaving for Port St. Lucie, Grohowski worked in Danbury for more than six years. A second former Danbury officer, Trevor Horton , joined the Port St. Lucie force a year ago, and on Monday Steven Camara , a Danbury cop for 9½ years, resigned to take a job there. "I'm still friends with a lot of people (in Danbury), and there are about six that I'm pretty confident could make the jump. We're even talking about making up T-shirts that say, 'Port St. Lucie, Danbury South,'Ÿ" Grohowski said. "Morale is terrible there. There is only so long you can take going to work with everybody saying, 'This place sucks.'Ÿ" The discontent was driven home in May, when the union, which has been working without a contract since July 1, 2003, voted 135 to 0 against a tentative deal that included a 12 percent pay raise over four years and a cost of living adjustment (COLA) in the pensions of officers hired after 1983. Currently, those officers have no cost of living adjustment - designed to offset inflation - in their pension plan. Pensions for officers who joined the force before 1983 include a COLA. All of the officers who've already left for Florida, or who may be headed there, are covered by the post-1983 plan. On its face, the proposed settlement sounds attractive, union officials concede. But they contend that accepting it would have left most officers worse off financially. "If you look at what we would have to pay in increased pension contributions to cover the COLA, and an increase in the cost sharing for the medical insurance, it comes out to a zero percent increase for single and married officers and a negative one percent for those with families," Maher said. The medical plan the city has offered is the same one already in place for most municipal employees. But Maher said it is more expensive and provides less coverage than the officers' current health package. City officials don't dispute the union's figures, but Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton said paying for the COLA "is going to cost the city $500,000 per year, every year, forever." Without the COLA adjustment, the pay increase for police would have been equal to that negotiated with city firefighters and other municipal workers, Boughton said. The contract is now in binding arbitration, a process that could drag on for months. Baker is hopeful some agreement can be reached short of a state-imposed settlement. Schmidt, who began working in Clearwater in June, said the contract situation was only one of the reasons he left. "There were other factors," he said. "Danbury has 16 cars with over 100,000 miles, which a lot of guys see as a safety issue. And manpower was a big problem." In Port St. Lucie, where Grohowksi works, a local ordinance mandates a police staffing level of 1.75 officers for every 1,000 people. There are 200 officers covering a city of 75,000. In contrast, Danbury has about the same population and an authorized force of 153. Of that number, 143 positions are filled. At least 10 of the 143 are out on injury or administrative leave. As a result, local officers said, it takes longer to respond to non-emergency calls. Officers assigned to one part of the city can spend a long time driving across town to handle calls in another part of the city when the officer assigned there is tied up. "A lot of time is wasted driving from Point A to Point B," Maher said. Officers say a balky computer system at police headquarters complicates what should be a relatively simple process of writing reports, and computers installed in patrol cars several years ago haven't worked in months because of hardware problems. Contributing to the morale problem, Georgoulis said, are staffing levels that haven't changed since the 1970s. In 1976, when Danbury's population was in the 50,000-plus range, the minimum manpower levels - established by union contract - were seven patrol officers from midnight to 8 a.m., seven officers from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and nine officers from 4 p.m. to midnight. Though there are as many as 40,000 more people in Danbury today (including undocumented immigrants), the minimum manpower requirement hasn't changed, he said. There are also several officers assigned to the bike patrol, but they are concentrated in the downtown area and don't get involved in traffic stops, Georgoulis said. "We know we're going to have to do something with manpower in the future," Boughton acknowledged. Despite the problems, Danbury remains one of the safest cities of its size in the nation, with a relatively low rate of violent crime, the mayor said. Two additional officers have been hired in the past two weeks, and Baker, who came on board earlier this year, is developing a strategic plan to deal with the department's needs. One idea under consideration is "civilianizing" some of the jobs performed by uniformed police personnel, which would put more officers on the street, Boughton said. Union leaders said Baker has made improvements in conditions at the Main Street station in the three months he's been on the job, and they're willing to work with him. "He has impressed us," Georgoulis said. "That's not to say he wants to give us carte blanche, but he is trying to evaluate things and make decisions that are in the best interests of everyone involved."

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