More than a quarter of Dallas police officers are eligible for retirement this month.
Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia told Dallas City Council members that 27% of the force has the years of service needed to retire with a pension. That's 871 Dallas officers.
Garcia is working with union leaders to encourage veteran officers to stay.
Police officers respond to all sorts of tragedies and can also be targets.
“We battle the challenges that exist in law enforcement, you know? Am I going to be chastised if I go out and actually enforce the law?” asked Terrance Hopkins, president of the Black Police Association of Greater Dallas.
Police departments also compete with other employers who may offer more regular hours and less stress.
“And our job market is so good right now, it's actually taking some of our senior officers away,” said Mike Mata, president of the Dallas Police Association.
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Both union leaders, Mata a patrol sergeant and Hopkins a special operations planner, are among the officers eligible for retirement this month.
“So, we really need to find ways to entice individuals that would otherwise retire immediately to stick around,” Garcia said.
The peak Dallas force of 3,690 sworn officers in 2011 is down to 3,079 now. There are more than 600 fewer officers to answer more calls for service than ever before.
As a result, police response times are slower this year compared with last.
“We need to continue to grow the department. We're certainly not throwing our hands up in the air. We've got work to do and we're going to keep grinding away at it,” Garcia said.
Dallas only has the budget and police academy capability for hiring 250 new officers this year. So, losing more than 800 to retirement would be very bad.
“It would devastate this department,” Mata said.
The 28-year veteran patrol officer said he stays despite occasionally being attracted to the idea of retirement with a pension that would still allow him to take another job.
“There's those bad days that I’m like, ‘Why do I continue to do this?’ And I come back to work every day. I think it’s the love of the job, the serving citizens,” Mata said.
Hopkins said he has 31 years as a Dallas officer
“I still have passion for what I do. I enjoy working with younger officers. I enjoy working with my command staff to put out a better product. So, there are different things that drive us all,” Hopkins said.
Union leaders met with Garcia Thursday to discuss ideas for motivating more veterans from leaving.
Hopkins said the ability to work in other areas of the department as he does instead of patrol may be enticing to long-time officers who've been out in the line of fire.
Mata said limited commitments are being sought from veterans.
“Not forever. We really need them to stick around three more years, at most five more years, just to give us time to build back the ranks of DPD,” Mata said.
It takes about 18 months for a new recruit to be fully trained for patrol.
“I think every major police department in the country is grinding to get men and women on the force,” Garcia said. “We’re going to grow this department in a lot of ways. Recruiting new officers is just one of them.”
A larger force of civilian police employees is also being planned for taking reports and visiting citizens.
“That would allow our officers to be available for the higher priority calls and violent crime, there’s no question about it, and allow our officers to have more free patrol time, which is what I hear, from going out in the neighborhoods, that I go to, that our community wants,” Garcia said.
Hopkins and Mata said police morale is strong under new Chief of Police Garcia, which helps convince officers to stay.
“He understood what they do every day and he was going to go out and do what they do every day. He kept his word. He does go out. He does answer calls. He does take people to jail,” Mata said.
Some crime categories including murder are up this year but overall violent crime is declining with Garcia's crime plan.