Column: Public Safety concerns should be City priority
The recent work session that discussed Aiken City Council concerns about the Aiken Department of Public Safety was critically important for Public Safety and City of Aiken residents. It was needed to address a large number of issues that have been building for the past several years. Without question, there were adverse effects of unimaginable proportions caused by the line of duty deaths of two officers in 2011 and 2012. While they are difficult to explain, they are there as they are in military units, which suffer mortal wounds.
Nonetheless, there are other areas which have generated concerns by Council before and after the recent tragedies. Repeated requests for data to properly evaluate the current compensation of Public Safety sworn officers with those agencies to which several have transferred will soon be met. Adequate compensation for all city employees is necessary to retain the experience and maximize the output to meet the ever-increasing challenges the City faces. Turnover is a problem throughout the City. In addition to the 31 percent turnover at Public Safety, other staff turnover is 34 percent. There is much to be done to reduce turnover to the generally accepted level of 10 percent.
Another major issue the department faces is low morale. I have heard from several sources that morale is suffering for a number of reasons. This poses a unique challenge to much of the senior management of the department, which has on balance more than 25 years of experience. They are being tasked to work with 30 officers with less than two years with the department. Unfortunately, the majority of the senior staff does not deal directly with the officers on patrol. There is a captain who, with help from lieutenants and sergeants, supervises the four shifts. He reports directly to the director. With morale problems, it is critical that the director and captain in charge spend as much time as possible with these inexperienced officers.
Some officers are forced to work extra hours for which they receive overtime pay after working three consecutive days of 12-hour shifts. It used to be that these assignments were coveted, but the younger generation prefers family time or personal time and would not work these assignments if given the choice. Some of these assignments could be for three hours. It might help for the City to consider a minimum period of work for these jobs.
Council was shocked that the City has no exit interview program for Public Safety officers who leave employment. While the director stated that he personally interviews each person leaving, we need a better system. All employees who leave for any reason, voluntary or involuntary, should complete an exit interview with Human Resources. These interviews must be reviewed by the City Manager who should resolve problems as noted and keep City Council aware of issues.
There is no grievance system in the City. We need a system, similar to the military’s Inspector General system, where employees can anonymously report problems. This could be a telephone hot line, which would be monitored by a senior member of the staff such as the assistant city manager.
Given the turnover problem in the City, we need an independent employee survey to identify some of the problems causing the morale problems in the City. This survey should be the responsibility of City Council. We should hire the firm and the results should be directly furnished to members of Council.
While police departments operate on a seniority system, that system should not affect the use of vehicles. New vehicles should first go to the patrol units. From several sources, the take-home policy of the department should be reviewed to ensure that patrol units have the best equipment.
Many residents are unaware of the manning issues at our fire stations. We hire apparatus drivers who maintain the fire vehicles and drive them to the scene of the fire to be used by the Patrol Officers who are also fire trained (i. e. graduate from the South Carolina Fire Academy). These drivers have no career path and have had no substantial wage increases in years. In addition to their station duties, they conduct fire inspections and maintain an inspection program for the City’s fire hydrants. While the compensation study we receive will focus on sworn police officers, we need to pay attention to this class of employees.
In fact, during our budget process, which is scheduled to begin in April, we should review our entire compensation system. The focus should be to ensure they are adequately compensated – not merely to give raises. We need to remember that taxpayers foot the bill for city operations and we owe them the duty to spend their money wisely.
Dick Dewar and Reggie Ebner are Aiken City Councilmembers.