When Good Cops Go to War

About a third of the sworn officers in Athens, Ohio, are either probationary employees, still riding with a field training officer, on extended leave or reactivated military. It's enough to keep Police Chief Rick Mayer awake at night.

There's another side to hiring former military, however; many are reservists. While serving in the military reserves is a noble and crucial sacrifice on the part of the reservist, agencies with a significant number on their duty rosters are finding when the tough get going, they're left scrambling for bodies.

So it follows that the bigger the department, the more statistically likely it is to have large numbers of reservists. This isn't a case of "the bigger they are, the harder they fall," because this is one time when size matters in a completely different way. In other words, the smaller the department, the harder hit it will be by reservist deployments.

Small-town departments with less than a dozen sworn face serious staffing shortages when even one officer reports for military duty. Mammoth departments such as the New York Police Department and many large state agencies don't feel the manpower pinch quite as radically as towns like Athens, but the big boys certainly share the financial pain of smaller jurisdictions.

New York City's governing officials were moved to protect its employees following the attacks on the World Trade Center by enacting an Extended Military Benefits Package. The package, which critics charge was not well thought out, was supposed to protect the jobs of city employees called up to active duty.

Under its provisions, those employees could retain their benefits and either their military or city pay, whichever was greater. The catch was, that at the end of deployment, the lesser salary was owed, either to the city, or military.

Problems arose when some of the city's number crunchers decided it was time to collect from officers who'd returned from active duty and resumed their careers at the NYPD. New York demanded not the net paycheck employees received, but the gross amount before taxes and other deductions were removed. The city also lumped in the value of housing and meals.

To say it's a stretch to attach a value to temporary quarters and military rations in the middle of a war zone is an understatement. But since many of those affected were in Iraq and Afghanistan, that's what happened.

After enough returned military employees complained, city officials were embarrassed into retracting their demand for compensation of housing and food from overseas.

But employees still have to pony up the money withheld from their military checks (taxes and other deductions), and that's problematic since not only do they have to pay the city money they never actually received, it's also a good bet they won't get it back. For most, the deadline for filing amended tax returns has already passed.

New York City officials were undoubtedly motivated by the best of intentions when they set their plan into motion. In addition to the accounting headache and personal financial drama created by this situation, it also burdened the city to the tune of about $75 million, and the full bill isn't in yet.

The NYPD, like every other law enforcement agency in the country, has to hold open the positions vacated by officers who've been shipped out. Of course, as a department with more than 37,000 employees, NYPD doesn't suffer like smaller agencies. Those departments face nightmare scheduling problems and less interaction with the public.

The financial burdens incurred by USERRA-impacted jurisdictions are bound to eventually surface in the budgets of local agencies — maybe not now, but certainly down the road.

Meanwhile, back in Ohio

The permanent population of the city of Athens is less than the number of employees on the roster of the NYPD. And even though Athens won't see the kind of budgetary crash and burn experienced by a city the size of the Big Apple, it's one of those things that common sense says will only grow worse over time.

In Athens' case, Mayer has two officers on active-duty status with the military and another out on extended leave. Since another five are in training or still green, that leaves Mayer running a 26-man department with 18 officers doing the work of a full complement.

If this chief reaches for the Excedrin when he finally manages to crawl in bed each night, it's because he knows it's impossible to do the kind of job needed when shorthanded, especially since the missing officers are supervisory personnel.

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