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Gary police union pitches salary hike to 'boost morale,' remain competitive
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Gary police union pitches salary hike to 'boost morale,' remain competitive

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A city patch is seen on the shoulder of a Gary patrolman July 24 at the Gary Police Department. 

GARY — The police union's president has made a Hail Mary request for salary boosts — the department's first increase in three years — with a looming state-mandated Nov. 1 deadline to pass a city budget.

Gary Fraternal Order of Police Union President Gregory Wolf, a sergeant, made the request at the Gary Common Council on Tuesday night.

He said while he's well aware of the financial strain the city is in, the department is struggling with recruitment and retention, low morale and manpower during shifts, and high shooting and homicide caseloads.

The city long has struggled to offer competitive salaries for its police officers and firefighters, often losing new recruits after a few short years, or veteran officers, to other neighboring towns or cities where the crime is lower and pay is higher, Wolf said.

The city is going to continue to lose officers to retirement and competitive pay elsewhere, including in East Chicago, which just awarded salary hikes to its officers, he said.

"We're in a situation where we don’t have the pool of applicants coming in," Wolf told the council Tuesday night.

Wolf told The Times on Wednesday morning that the Fraternal Order of Police is seeking a 3% raise for all officers on the department (excluding exempt positions like the chief, deputy chief and command staff), a one-time vacation bump in 2021 in lieu of COVID-19 hazard pay, a doubling of yearly uniform allowance, and a change in the holiday pay and schedule structure. 

"We need fair wages, and we do need to take care of police and fire. There's no police or fire department remotely like ours in proximity ... with the amount of EMS and fire runs and the calls the police department takes. It's crazy when you look at what other departments do, and what they make. There's a gun-involved crime every 12 hours. Someone is shot at in the city every 48 hours. There's a homicide every six days," Wolf told The Times.  

'All raises' on the table

The mayor's proposed budget for 2021 includes $54 million in the general fund. Nearly $24 million is dedicated to covering police and fire operations and $9.6 million is dedicated to police and fire pensions. The proposal also includes pay hikes for some of Mayor Jerome Prince's key staff members that largely would not affect the departments' bottom line, and pay hikes for all council members. 

Council President William Godwin, D-1st, said Tuesday that after speaking with the FOP, any and all requests for pay raises, including the council, are on the potential chopping block if the police department doesn’t see a raise in next year’s budget.

"Let’s get a grasp on what a pay raise would cost," Godwin said, adding that the budget could be amended after the Nov. 1 deadline, if necessary.

Lay argued 2020 "may not be the year to give anyone a raise," given the pandemic that's exacerbated the city's already dire financial situation. 

Headcount down

In 2015, council members reportedly were troubled to hear the police roster had dropped below 200, when GPD has been budgeted for 235 historically. On Tuesday, Wolf said the Gary Police Department now has only 157 officers, which is not always enough to cover minimum staffing every shift when you take into account officers on vacation, out on injury or sick leave.

"Our citizens are not safe in our city. Our officers are not safe. We do have nights with ample manpower, with 14 to 15 guys out. But more often than not, you have an average of 10 guys out on the street. That's 5 square miles of coverage for every officer and 8,000 residents each," Wolf said. 

Wolf said he believes violent criminals are emboldened when they see fewer patrol officers on the street. Hiring, and retaining, officers is critical with shootings up significantly this year, he said. 

"When you see a cop, it's a deterrence," Wolf said, highlighting how he, as part of the city's Multi-Agency Gang unit in 2018, made a traffic stop on someone who was intending to fatally shoot someone. He was able to make an arrest because the driver blew a stop sign. 

"We have to have the staffing to be proactive, not reactive," he said. 

Competitive enough? 

Recruits currently receive a starting salary of $49,304. Wolf told The Times the union also is proposing decreasing recruits' initial salaries to $45,000 while they attend the academy, field training and remain in their probationary stages. But once they get through the probationary period, they would receive a pay bump to $50,783. 

Councilman Clorius Lay, D-at large, countered, saying a recruit pay decrease seems counterintuitive if the department is seeking raises to compete with other communities. 

"You're contradicting your need to be competitive?" Lay asked.  

Wolf explained to The Times on Wednesday the initial pay reduction is fair to GPD's current ranks, while also providing a significant bump once a recruit's probationary period is over. 

"Our contention has been when the recruit is training and riding around with another officer, that doesn't count towards our headcount. We have some guys working here 10 to 12 years upset that these new recruits are making the same money as the guy they're training," Wolf said. 

Wolf maintained that's still substantially lower than the pay at other Region police departments, but that it's a start. 

Morale booster

The GPD has not had a union contract since 2018, he said. 

"That's why I'm asking for a bump in raise, the uniform allowance. It raises morale, and it may keep people from going to another department. It makes them believe the city thinks they are worth something," Wolf said. 

Wolf also has proposed doubling each officers' yearly uniform allowance to $1,000 per year from $500 — which is barely enough to cover uniforms and accessories like belts, flashlights, boots, name plates, winter coats and more. He noted the allowance previously was $1,000 before it was halved. 

Wolf is asking the city to provide its officers an extra week's vacation in 2021 — a one-time ask in lieu of COVID-19 pandemic hazard pay.

The fourth ask would give officers a chance to select 15 holidays off a year— predetermined at the start of the year when they put in for vacation. That would be in lieu of officers who work the holiday getting eight extra hours of compensation time.

The council's Finance Committee is set to discuss police — and fire — pay raises at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. The meeting will be held virtually over Zoom. 

Tony Walker, a top adviser to the Gary mayor, said Prince was scheduled Wednesday morning to discuss and promote a new income stream for Gary's public safety with the Indiana House of Representative's Ways and Means Chairman Tim Brown. No further details on that were immediately available.

Gallery: Recent arrests booked into Lake County Jail

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North Lake County Reporter

Lauren covers North Lake County government, breaking news, crime and environmental issues for The Times. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting from UIS. Contact her at lauren.cross@nwi.com or 219-933-3206.

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