Local police wary of future: some officers not applying to town’s new department | SierraSun.com

Local police wary of future: some officers not applying to town’s new department

A 20-year veteran with Nevada County Sheriff’s Office, Sgt. Kevin Harper is leaving law enforcement to pursue selling automobiles.

A vocation he began four years ago to supplement his salary as a law enforcement officer, Harper wandered into the business of wholesale factory-warranty automobile sales because he had to.

Harper is one of the many local officers who aren’t applying to the new Truckee police department scheduled to start in 2001, for reasons ranging from wages to job security.

Nevada County Sheriff’s Office wages are low compared to those for law enforcement officers in neighboring counties.

As of April 2000, entry-level deputies in Nevada County started at $11.31 per hour with benefits. The total compensation per month was $3,889, 21 percent less than Placer County patrol officers.

Harper is a family man. He and his wife are expecting their fourth child in the near future, and he says it would be difficult to support his family with law enforcement wages alone.

This is the community Harper lives in, where his children live, and he feels his reputation is more important than a profit, even if it means losing money to satisfy a customer.

After all, most of Harper’s customers are either his neighbors, his coworkers, fellow parents at his PTO meetings, the clerks at Safeway or members of the community he recognizes as friends.

Integrity may have been one of the principles Harper honed as a law enforcement officer. It may also be because of his profession that he is pursuing other business opportunities.

Police wait for new chief

As the town of Truckee prepares for its own police department to be formed and a new police chief selected, NCSO officers are waiting to see whether or not they will be hired, or to decide whether or not they want to be hired for the town’s new department at all.

The Town of Truckee is hoping to hire the most qualified police chief possible, a standard they hope to maintain as the new chief comes aboard and continues with the town manager to complete the hiring process.

But like any transition, there are no guarantees. NCSO officers may not be leaving Truckee, but they may be leaving the field of law enforcement.

“All else being equal, we would hire the officer with knowledge of Truckee,” Town Manager Steve Wright said. “Individual, personal background and experience will be a part in the overall analysis in the decision of whether or not an individual fits with the Truckee Police Department.”

Nevertheless, many cannot take the chance of not being hired and have decided to take positions elsewhere – including the current police force’s captain.

“I have told my men I will not be reapplying,” said NCSO Capt. Gary Jacobson. “I will miss the community up here. There is really a great group of people up here.”

Jacobson said his job description has not been written into the plan for Truckee’s new police force. While the exact number of officers in the new police force and their classifications may be undetermined, Wright anticipates hiring 25 officers.

Jacobson has been very involved with the Town of Truckee in the process of molding the direction and philosophy of the new department, and has been keeping his staff informed at every turn.

“Right now I’m appointed chief,” he said. “The town treats me like a department head so I have been meeting with them regularly.” Jacobson added that the communication between NCSO, the town and Caltrans has been exceptional. Jacobson has never had to fire a law enforcement officer in Truckee, and with the transition during the next six months, he won’t have to.

“The Sheriff guarantees placement within Nevada County,” he said. Additionally, a small complement of staff will remain at the Truckee substation because there are duties Nevada County officers will still be required to perform.

However, that won’t guarantee a high rate of reapplication. Some officers, like Martin Schoenberg, have already left.

Increased funding needed

Now a police officer with the Richmond Police Department in the Bay area, Schoenberg has mixed feelings about the conditions for Nevada County officers.

Schoenberg, 45, started as a full-time sworn deputy shortly after graduating from the Sacramento County Sheriff Training Academy in 1998. His starting pay was $11.90 per hour.

“There was no way I could have worked for Nevada County without having some previous business success,” said Schoenberg, who owned a successful business in the Bay area.

“There is no way anyone can work at those wages and live in Truckee unless they have a second job. Or they need to live with their parents or work a tremendous amount of overtime. In my case I was fortunate.”

“It’s very difficult to coerce somebody to work up here when the wages are so low and the cost of living is so high,” he added. “And because of the loss of manpower, the sheriff’s office could not train people.”

Schoenberg said he performed various tasks he wasn’t trained to do during his stint with Nevada County, such as street level narcotics enforcement and traffic incident and crime scene investigations.

“I’m not saying that the sheriff’s office worked improperly, I’m simply saying that the resources were not there,” he said.

Lt. Dave Baxley, who also will not be applying to the new police force, said all deputies say they need more course work.

“Schoenberg had all the tools to do the job,” Baxley said. “As far as advanced course work, the agency that was responsible for funding those kinds of classes was in a money crunch (when he was here) … that is partly true, but we are sending people through those classes as money allows.”

Officers in demand

With law enforcement officers in demand around the state, the competition may make it difficult for the town to fill the roster for Truckee police during the next six months.

“Right now it’s an employee’s market,” Jacobson said from his office Tuesday.

“It takes six months to hire an officer,” said Sgt. Kevin Harper.

The process requires recruiting officers from neighboring regions, performing various background checks and psychological checks.

“It’s going to be difficult to get people to move to this region,” he said.

“I’m 45 years old. I have 16 years of seniority with Nevada County. I don’t feel like starting over again,” said School Resource Officer Terry Oats, a homeowner and parent in Truckee. “This is law enforcement, you’re not going to get rich. You do it because you enjoy it.”

Oats, like many at the Nevada County office, is waiting to see what happens as the town proceeds in hiring the new police chief before he decides whether or not to apply to the new Truckee force.

“There is a lot of ambivalence with the formation of the new department. A lot will depend on the new chief,” said NCSO detective Ron Phelan. “My heart is in this community … My kids love living here.”

Phelan also said police are wanted anywhere in the U.S., but police from other states can’t come here as easily because of the pay and the cost of living. Phelan has already decided to reapply to the new department.

Schoenberg said the cost of living in Truckee is a little bit under if not just as high as the Bay area.

Salaries being set

Jacobson said the Sheriff Management Association, one of three associations involved with law enforcement wages in the area, has settled on a pay scale contract with Nevada County.

“The Deputy Sheriff Association is currently in negotiations with the county over a contract,” he said.

According to Wright, the salary for the commander traditionally will set the salary scale for everyone else in the enforcement department. The retirement package has already been determined.

“Nevada County has historically been a low-paying organization. The Board of Supervisors has made significant efforts in the last year to improve that,” he said.

As for Sgt. Harper, soon to be Truckee’s first established automobile wholesale representative, he filed an application with the Town of Truckee’s planning department Oct. 23 for a conditional use permit that would allow the Truckee Auto Mall to use a building for sales and distribution.

The Truckee Auto Mall, a misnomer for his rather low-key service of taking and filling wholesale orders, is likely to continue growing. It’s not a job Harper particularly wants to do; it’s a job he has to do.

“I have 20 years in law enforcement. I love it. People know me here … It’s the town that supported me because they knew I needed it. I’m not going to turn around and gouge them,” Harper said.

“I love Truckee. I’m not leaving here.”

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