Police force turnover takes heavy toll at USF

Published April 30, 2007

TAMPA - The University of South Florida Police Department has so many officers quitting that new hires must now sign a three-year contract. If they leave early, they have to reimburse the department for their training.

Chief Thomas Longo started the policy last year after noticing a steady increase in the number of officers leaving to work for higher paying agencies.

A rookie cop working for USF makes around $35, 000 a year. A first-year deputy in Hillsborough makes around $39, 000. Tampa pays its officers $42, 000 and some get a take-home police car.

Recruiting for the university is "a tough sell to make, " says USF police spokeswoman Lt. Meg Ross.

That's a big problem for USF, especially given the heightened focus on campus security in the wake of the Virginia Tech murders.

The campus' 47 officers are responsible for the safety of more than 50, 000 students, faculty and employees. They patrol a territory the size of many small cities. They respond to burglaries, thefts, domestic disputes and homicides. They staff special events and concerts.

And they do it with as few as four officers on a shift.

Jennifer Capeheart-Meningall, USF's vice president for Student Affairs, which oversees the Police Department, says she is working on a solution with the chief.

The turnover rate is approaching 50 percent a year. Of the 47 sworn positions in the department, seven are vacant.

"In an urban city, officers get lots of other choices, " she said. "That makes it really a complex issue for us."

A pay hike would be good news for James Boyd, one of the department's more experienced officers after three years on the job.

More students are living on campus - 4, 400 as of this fall - meaning "the same work load distributed over fewer officers, " Boyd says.

The Florida State University Police Department faced similar retention issues, says FSU police spokesman Lt. James Trumbower.

Officers at the Tallahassee school were getting an annual cost of living increase instead of being paid according to experience. That caused many officers to look elsewhere, he said.

Trumbower helped craft a system that gives salary increases based on length of service.

"I believe it's helped, " he said.

Longo and the university also are looking for ways to hire more officers.

Kevin Graham can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or kgraham@sptimes.com.