Portsmouth OKs police chief’s plan to retain officers

Department is down eight officers, or 21 percent of the force

By Jim McGaw
Posted 9/12/23

It’s a nationwide crisis that has finally come home to roost within the Portsmouth Police Department — losing good officers to other jobs, which has resulted in a staffing shortage on the force.

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Not a subscriber?

Start a Subscription

Sign up to start a subscription today! Click here to see your options.

Purchase a day pass

Purchase 24 hours of website access for $2. Click here to continue

Day pass subscribers

Are you a day pass subscriber who needs to log in? Click here to continue.

Portsmouth OKs police chief’s plan to retain officers

Department is down eight officers, or 21 percent of the force


PORTSMOUTH — It’s a nationwide crisis that has finally come home to roost within the Portsmouth Police Department — losing good officers to other jobs, which has resulted in a staffing shortage on the force.

On Monday night, however, the Town Council unanimously approved Police Chief’s Brian Peters’s employee retention plan with the aim of incentivizing the best and brightest to stay with the department.

“I’m extremely concerned about the retention of our officers as well as the recruitment of new hires,” Chief Peters told the council. “Our staffing levels are currently down by eight officers right now to respond to calls. This number reflects 21 percent of our police department. People might hear the number eight and think that’s not too much, but to put it in perspective, the Providence Police Department has 491 officers. If they were down 21 percent as our department is, they would be down by 103 officers. I think if people heard that number, they would agree there’s cause for alarm in being down 21 percent.”

Of those eight positions, three are due to unfilled vacancies, one officers is deployed in the military, one officer is out with an extended injury, one is on extended leave and there are two recruits currently in the academy who won’t be ready for solo patrol until next spring, the chief said.

“And I’m concerned we may lose more by the fall,” he said. “Not including retirements, we have lost six officers over the past year. We’ve lost one to Warwick Police, one to East Providence Police, one to the New Hampshire State Police, and one to the United States Federal Air Marshal (Service). One officer left the police department to enter the private sector, and unfortunately I have to report that we had one officer recruit in the academy and within the past couple of weeks … decided they no longer wanted to become a police officer and resigned.”

‘Inadequate salary’

Peters cited numerous reasons for the difficulty in retaining police officers, one of them being inadequate salary and compensation. “Portsmouth, unfortunately, is currently on the low end and we are below average in pay across the board against our comparable police departments. In addition … we are competing against departments who still have a local pension system that are funded and have greater benefits which may be more appealing to the officers and the other departments are using that to their advantage,” he said.

Since the majority of local police officers are in the Municipal Employee Retirement System (MERS), they have a greater flexibility to transfer, Peters said. With a local pension plan, officers couldn’t go to another department without the risk of losing everything they contributed to the plan.

“With our department being in the MERS system, you can just transfer your time and your credit and go from department to department as long as they are currently in the MERS system,” he said.

Long hours and high stress levels can also impact officers’ decision to stay on the local force, he said. “Our officers were ordered in over the past year 622 times. That’s 622 times that officers who had other plans — they wanted to be with their family, they had other issues they wanted to (deal with) — and they were told, ‘You cannot do that; you have to come in and staff the station,’” Peters said.

The problem is being compounded as there are few good candidates to consider when someone leaves or retires. “Years ago you’d have 300 applicants for one or two positions, and it was a competitive process. When you got on the job as a police officer, you would stay because it was very difficult to go elsewhere,” he said.

Now, Portsmouth is competing with the other departments statewide for that smaller pool of qualified candidates, said Peters, adding he refuses to compromise on the quality of officer selected for his department.

The local department is also a victim of its own success, Peters told the council. The department provides excellent training opportunities and its officers are certified in many disciplines including hostage negotiation, drug recognition and accident reconstruction. “With the training and the opportunities we provide our officers, unfortunately they can pretty much write their ticket to any other police or law enforcement agency under this climate,” the chief said.

“We need to find a way to keep our great officers we have in Portsmouth and prevent them from going elsewhere, as well as recruit and retain new qualified applicants.”

How the plan works

Under the plan, every full-time police officer (except for the chief) will receive a $2,500 stipend on the first pay date in October, or a date to be determined. In the second year, officers would receive another $2,500 stipend on the first pay date in August. Any officer who received the initial $2,500 stipend and is still employed on the following July 1, which begins the new fiscal year, will receive a second $2,500 stipend in July. 

Any officer who resigns, retires or is terminated from employment (other than death or disability) prior to the following July 1 will be required to repay the full $2,500 stipend back to the town. Any officer who retired with 20 years of credited service prior to Feb. 1 following the first payment must repay the full $2,500 stipend.

Traditional hiring bonuses don’t work, the chief explained, saying they may lure new officers but can cause resentment among the ranks. “Officers walking in the door should not get close to, if not more, in compensation of the existing officers that have been there,” he said.

The stipend is non-pensionable and contingent the following: 

• The police union must sign a memorandum of agreement prior to the stipend.

• The employee must be a full-time police officer with the town as of the preceding July 15 prior to the first payment. Any full-time police officer hired after July 15 will receive a pro-rated initial stipend.

• The retention plan will remain in effect for two years and expire on July 15, 2025.

Peters said the maximum cost in years one and three of the plan, for 37 officers, would be $92,500 each. In year two, the maximum cost would be $185,000.

Peters proposed to fund the program through a portion of the town’s 2023 fiscal year surplus funds. “A contributing factor for that surplus has been the unfilled positions in the Portsmouth Police Department,” Peters said.

Council members said they supported the proposal and commended Peters for initiating the plan. Council Vice President Leonard Katzman said he viewed the plan as a “stopgap measure” and gives the council time to explore other quality of life issues to retain and attract police officers that may not necessarily be related to compensation. 

“Portsmouth can offer things, I believe, that not all communities can,” Katzman said.

The chief’s proposal also found support from several residents who spoke. Local real estate agent John Vitkevich said he’s proud of the work the department does, and added he’s working on a plan to provide more housing opportunities locally for young police officers. “They’re a separate bunch and we all know what the housing prices are right now in Portsmouth,” he said.

Another resident, Thomas Grieb, also supported the idea. He suggested, however, that the council set aside the surplus money that’s earmarked for local warrants first, with the retention plan drawing on the remaining funds. 

Portsmouth Police Department, Portsmouth Town Council

2023 by East Bay Media Group

Barrington · Bristol · East Providence · Little Compton · Portsmouth · Tiverton · Warren · Westport
Meet our staff
Mike Rego

Mike Rego has worked at East Bay Newspapers since 2001, helping the company launch The Westport Shorelines. He soon after became a Sports Editor, spending the next 10-plus years in that role before taking over as editor of The East Providence Post in February of 2012. To contact Mike about The Post or to submit information, suggest story ideas or photo opportunities, etc. in East Providence, email mrego@eastbaymediagroup.com.