20 percent of police department considering retirement
Many concerned over possible loss of benefits
The Warwick Police union (FOP Lodge No. 7) has indicated that about 37 police officers (more than 20 percent of the department’s 172 uniformed officers) are considering retirement due to uncertainty regarding a new collective bargaining agreement, and that as many as 18 officers of varying rank have already begun the process to go forward with announcing their retirement.
These retirements, according to multiple sources with connections to the police department including union president Jed Pineau, if all acted upon would significantly impact both the detective unit and essentially eliminate the computer forensics unit – of which Warwick is the only police department in Rhode Island apart from the State Police to have a full complement of officers dedicated.
“It would effectively shut down that unit,” Pineau said of the computer forensics unit, explaining that the team deals with extraction of data primarily from cell phones and video surveillance systems.
Such forensic work was largely utilized in the recent investigation and capture of the perpetrators who committed the armed robbery and murder of Fernando Silva (Captain Freddy). The highlights of that digital forensics work was recently portrayed in the Investigation Discovery documentary series “See No Evil.”
Pineau expressed his disappointment and concern last week about the Warwick City Council opting to hold discussions regarding the approval of a tentative agreement reached with former Mayor Scott Avedisian in April until their July 16 meeting. The current contract is set to expire June 30.
“We don’t know what's going on. We were hoping [it would be held] for [the next meeting on] June 18,” he said. “We didn’t really get any reason.”
Still, Pineau remained optimistic that the union would be able to work with Mayor Joseph Solomon and Colonel Stephen McCartney towards a new agreement. Pineau said the union has a history of compromising when the city needed them to make concessions, such as in 2009 when the department delayed their contractual pay raises by 17 weeks and reduced their numbers through attrition to help the city balance its budget during hard financial times.
Likewise, Pineau said in 2012 the department changed from a 20-year to 25-year pension for new hires and, since 2012, retirees no longer get guaranteed 3 percent COLAs, rather they receive 75 percent of the consumer price index. Additionally, he said, in the most recent contract reached in 2015, the union agreed to no longer guarantee retirees family health plans. The union also agreed to forego $1,000 bonuses for each member offered by then-mayor Avedisian, which saved the city over $150,000.
“We have always sat down and given compromises and given concessions,” Pineau said. “I think we have shown our ability to work with all parties in a negotiation.”
As for the reasoning behind delaying the contract negotiations, City Council President Steve Merolla said on Monday that the council was placed in an unfavorable position by not being able to see the tentative agreement until right before Avedisian announced his impending retirement, only to be compounded upon by city finance director Bruce Keiser announcing his own retirement immediately prior to budget hearings beginning in late May.
“We're not fulltime employees,” Merolla said. “I have a job and I have to do my job during the day and only have so much time during the night time to review these things.”
Merolla added that the contract has compounded on itself for decades, meaning the current tentative agreement includes provisions going back to 1972. He said that in order to perform their due diligence for the taxpayers, it would be irresponsible for the council to try and rush their review of the contract.
“There's a significant amount of work to determine the cost [of the agreement] and the CFO [Keiser] and CEO [Avedisian] have left. Those are the people that negotiated the agreement, and so to say you should be able to turn it around in two weeks would be a disservice to everybody,” he said. “If you try to buy a house it takes over a month, but you write a contract and it's supposed to be done in two weeks?”
Merolla said he didn’t understand why people were reacting so strongly to the situation, as even if an agreement isn’t reached once the current contract expires, the same provisions will carry over at least until a new deal is reached.
“I don’t get the rationale to be concerned,” he said. “The folks that are retiring are locked into an agreement…Worst case scenario they're in the same situation.”
The alternative is, as Pineau explained, if the council decides to tweak the agreement in a way that the union finds disagreeable. Then, in theory, the contract could head to arbitration, where it would be out of both the city’s and the union’s hands as to what becomes contractual regarding retirement and healthcare benefits. It is a situation where officers considering retirement know what they are dealing with now, versus not knowing what could happen down the road.
“There's always the potential that it needs to be renegotiated and something might be changed,” said Pineau.
Colonel McCartney, meanwhile, said on Monday he has not received any official notices of retirement outside of those that were scheduled before any concerns about the contract were raised. He urged patience and level-headedness going forward and indicated he was in active talks with Solomon and the union representatives.
“I continue to remain very optimistic that things will work out. And at the same time, I have one job – to make sure this department functions and continues to function and continues to deliver services to its constituents,” he said. “To me, this is a waiting game and I, once again, can only hope that every officer who is thinking about this thinks in a very level-headed fashion and makes the right decision for him and his family.”
Both McCartney and Pineau are focused on finding a resolution and getting back to work.
“We'd really like to get this going so guys can get to work and continue doing what we do,” said Pineau.
“I'm not worried about anything right now,” McCartney said. “If people do retire between now and July 17, then I'll continue to work with the people I do have. I'd hate to lose those people, but we'll continue to march.”
Adding to the concerns regarding retirements is a report that as many as 32 members of the Warwick Fire Department are considering retirement as they face their own impending collective bargaining agreement coming to an end on June 30. However, the city has yet to even reach a tentative agreement with the IAFF, and there have been no discernible updates in that area at this time.
Mayor Solomon did not return an email of inquiries regarding contracts as of press time.