JACKSONVILLE, FL A job fair hosted by Jacksonville’s police union offering positions elsewhere – called a slap in the face by the sheriff – is merely a move to look out for the rank and file, the union’s president said.
Criticism for the two-day fair for current and retired officers that opened Wednesday at the Fraternal Order of Police Jacksonville headquarters on Beach Boulevard also came from candidates looking to replace John Rutherford, who is term-limited.
Rutherford said he spoke with union president Steve Amos, who told him that the union was simply hosting the other departments.
“I expressed to him my dismay that the FOP, especially the leadership, would do such a thing,” Rutherford said.
The sheriff called it an “in-your-face” move reminiscent of antics of former union president Nelson Cuba, whose tenure as president often included confrontation. Cuba has been gone from the union since his arrest and conviction in an Internet cafe gambling case.
Rutherford saw the job fair as a way for the union to make a point over issues such as pension and pay. “All they are trying to do with this is poke the city in the eye,” he said. “All they are doing is making things worse. I just think it is going to make the FOP look ridiculous.”
Amos doesn’t see it that way. He said Rutherford has not been able to retain officers because of low pay and the dismantling of pension benefits.
Amos said the city continually wants cuts when the union presents new pension proposals and while Rutherford is an advocate for officers and must deal with the consequences of them leaving, the union is not promoting departures.
“We are not facilitating that,” Amos said. “We are just providing something for the officers who will be leaving anyway. You have people retiring every quarter.”
Recruiters from Hillsborough and Pinellas counties as well police departments from Orlando, Tampa and Austin, Texas, were signed up to recruit as was the FBI.
Recruiters had jobs to offer, like 150 openings in Austin’s 1,700-person department, with a $63,920 salary for a first-year officer. A recruiting website for Jacksonville police lists about a $37,000 first-year salary.
Austin Sgt. Gizette Gustin said more police unions are having job fairs, including recent ones in Los Angeles, San Diego and Memphis. “We have had several calls from police union presidents saying ‘We are having issues; can you come over and recruit?’ ” she said.
Issues often revolve around pay and promotions, she said, and unions give the department a chance to make a pitch to their officers.
The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has about 1,600 police and 780 corrections officers, according to a 2014 city budget committee report.
Amos said about 75 employees went to other agencies in 2013, continuing a three-year trend. He said those leaving included highly trained SWAT, dive and bomb team members.
They left for substantially higher salaries to agencies looking for specialized officers, he said.
Officers usually do online job searches, Amos said. With the Sheriff’s Office in the bottom third in police salaries in Florida, members asked the union to host its first job fair.
Amos said the last across-the-board pay increase was in 2006 and union members took a 3 percent pay cut after 48 officers as well as community service officers were laid off.
Jacksonville voters will choose a new sheriff in spring elections, and most candidates looking to replace Rutherford said they thought the union was making a bad move.
Jay Farhat, a homicide sergeant, said the agency has become something of a feeder to other departments already. He and Mike Williams, a retired Sheriff’s Office director and also one of seven running, said efforts by the union should be to improve the relationship with the department and city.
“We need to improve morale and keep officers here,” Farhat said.
Williams said it was disappointing and that having this at the police union hall sends another message that is not one of cooperation or passive involvement.
“They had a big hand in it obviously,” he said.
Jimmy Holderfield, who has the union’s endorsement and is a past president, said layoffs were a shock to the department and there have been issues of morale following those, lack of pay raises and to a lesser extent pension issues. But he said he hasn’t heard that the job fair is raising concerns.
“I would have to see what the purpose is,” he said. “I wouldn’t be for grandstanding. If this is ‘Gee whiz, we’ve got to do this,’ I’d have to weigh that out.”
The intent he said is something between the union leadership and members.
Ken Jefferson, a candidate who was a recruiter at one point with the Sheriff’s Office, said they should be trying to attract officers. “It appears to me they have given up on their own agency.” he said.
Tony Cummings said the Sheriff’s Office is also losing officers to retirement and must deal with low morale issues at the department he wants to run as sheriff. “It’s just bad character,” he said. “The outcome here is not going to be beneficial to the agency.”
Candidate Rob Schoonover said the union seems to be what he called bailing out from the Sheriff’s Office. Instead, it should wait to see what happens following the election.
“I wish they would give the next sheriff the chance to improve morale,” he said.
Lonnie McDonald, who retired as an assistant chief and was a late entrant into the race, said he had not discussed the issue with the union but it has deep ties to Jacksonville. “I don’t see the FOP trying to hurt the city,” he said.
Amos said people are leaving the department “all the time,” and it’s not because of the Sheriff or fraternal order.
“It’s because these people are wanting certainty and stability in their future.” Amos said. “The job has enough stresses and negative things that happen that you don’t need that to worry about also. They have families to take care of.”
As Jacksonville corrections officer David Stevens sat down with out-of-town recruiters, he said he can understand Rutherford’s concerns with the union hosting a job fair.
“From an officer’s standpoint, if we can provide our family with a better measure of living, why not do it?” Stevens said. “It is just a meet-and-greet; I am not even in a situation yet with my family to move.”