Low wages thin the ranks of USF’s police force

click to see video interview with Officer Chris Migliore

Within a few weeks of starting his job with USF’s police department two years ago, Chris Migliore saw three officers leave for better-paying positions at other law enforcement agencies.

The 25-year-old patrol officer is looking to make a similar move.

Migliore faces a dilemma common to many of USF’s police officers with a few years of experience under their belt: Should they continue to work at USF, where the call-volumes are lower and the atmosphere more relaxed and open, or take the higher pay and other perks offered by other local law enforcement agencies?

The enticement of the added income often trumps, a fact crystallized in the police force’s 40 percent turnover rate during the last six years.

“We have a good thing here, but it’s to the point where I have to do what I have to do to secure my financial future,” Migliore said.

Like a farm club for a major league baseball team, USF regularly loses officers who have gained the experience to garner better wages, benefits and opportunities with other agencies. As veterans of the force leave for jobs offering more money, benefits and excitement, greener officers fill the void.

More than half of the officers on patrol have less than a year experience with university policing, Longo said.

And veteran officers looking for jobs with other departments in the Tampa Bay area, have lots of choices, meaning USF has lots of competition. More than 30 different jurisdictions in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties compete for law enforcement officers, and all of them pay better than USF.

“It’s a revolving door,” said USF Police Chief Thomas Longo. “What we’re experiencing now has been the culmination of years of events.”

Finding qualified candidates willing to work for lower pay and do less sexy work than that offered by the vice squads, SWAT teams and K-9 units in city and county police forces presents a challenge, said Longo.

To check the turnover, labeled “debilitating” in a memo sent by Longo to Vice President of Student Affairs Jennifer Meningall in November, Longo has proposed a pay plan for USFPD modeled after the Tampa PD. Officers would receive higher starting salaries, and receive a set increase in their base salary every year.

At the Tampa Police Department, starting salaries for officers begin at $40,456, over $5,000 more than the $35,041 new hires make with University Police. As officers gain more experience the pay gap only widens. Ten-year veterans with Tampa PD can make $20,000 more than their university counterparts.

“We don’t have a lot of other ways to keep officers,” said Longo. “Better pay is one of the only things we can offer.”

USF police officers are in the third month of contract negotiations with the university. A better pay package has been proposed by the university. It includes a one-year bonus for all officers and pay increases for incoming officers and other young officers at the bottom of the force’s pay scale.

“The university wants to bring the police up to the best practices possible,” said Meningall, who hired Longo last year and requested memos from him about ways to improve University Police. “We do the best we can to create a safe environment, but no one can guarantee exclusive safety.”

The university is actively seeking bids from private security companies to monitor residence halls and perform some of the mundane duties that pull

university police officers from more important tasks, Meningall said.

“It is going to take us some time for us to get to a place where we can say we are at the best possible practices we can be.”

But the consistent turnover, conflated with a police force employing fewer officers than other large state schools and the crime from USF’s surrounding community leads to the question: Is USF’s police force large enough and experienced to provide adequate campus safety?

Its manpower is nearly the same as in 1996, when USF enrolled nearly 10,000 fewer students. Among its peer universities in the state – the University of Florida, University of Central Florida and Florida State University – the university has the worst officer to student ratio.

But according to statistics compiled by University Police, reported crimes on USF’s campus dropped 11 percent from 2005 to 2006, a decrease Lt. Meg Ross attributed in part to an increased emphasis in police visibility during that time.

Other numbers tell a different tale. FBI statistics for 2005 placed USF among the top 25 universities in violent crimes – which include robbery, aggravated assault and forcible rape.

In memos to Meningall, Longo pointed to increased gang activity in surrounding community as a concern.

Low ratios of officers to students mean the police force can spare only four patrol officers for each shift, half of the eight Longo said the force needs to adequately patrol a campus of USF’s size.

That means would-be criminals at USF see fewer officers on patrol, the best deterrent to campus crime, Longo said.

USF now employs 40 officers, 22 less than the 62 suggested by Longo. UP is funded for up to 53 officers, but has had difficulty attracting officers to fill the positions.

Patrol officers like Migliore often work overtime and higher-ranking UP employees must assume patrol duties when there are too few officers available for shifts, Longo said.

“My biggest concern is the day to day life of students,” Longo said. “There are students walking from classrooms to study groups and their minds should be focused on scholarship. The last thing they should be worried about is if they are going to be mugged along the way…and without sufficient people out and about that sort of thing is likely to happen more often.”