Maria Rivera remembers one of her toughest moments on the Camden (N.J.) Police Department. The single mom and an eight-year-veteran patrol officer knew how to deal with ugly things represented by ugly words: domestic abuse, fights, assaults, homicide. But nothing readied her for the words "laid off." In January, Camden laid off 168 on a force of 375 sworn officers.
"It has an impact when you love what you do. When you have to turn in your badge, that's painful," Rivera says, her voice cracking. "That's who you are. It's like a piece of you is taken away."
More and more officers nationwide are learning exactly how Rivera feels.
John Rimedio has had urine thrown on him. He's been spit on and attacked. He's received daily tirades unleashed by inmates of the Summit County, Ohio, jail, but it's all in his day's work as a deputy sheriff, and training helped him deal with such situations.
But nothing trained him for walking papers. The five-year deputy was laid off in December 2009, along with 30 others.
"We were doing paperwork outside the cell. Then this all-page came in. We knew it was coming. But the pages weren't simultaneous... I saw one of my buddies get his page before me," Rimedio says. "I read his face. I didn't even have to look at the jaw drop. Just a feeling in the whole room of being let down. Some tears. You could've heard a pin drop."
Rimedio, 28 and single, felt for everyone, right before Christmas. "We were a tight group working like a small family. If you had a bad day, this was your second family."
"It's so frightening," says Sgt. T.J. Assion of the Mahoning County (Ohio) Sheriff's Department and president of FOP Grand Lodge 141, who is dealing with 48 layoffs. "You stay up at night. You worry you can't make the mortgage. You might have to go out and get food stamps and a WIC card. You're worried about your wife and kid, wondering if you'll have your heat shut off or if you can make the car payments, or put gas in the car."
Assion should know. He remembers his layoff in 2005. At the time he was 27, married, with a newborn. "I had to take a job landscaping. I remember coming home from head to toe covered in mulch, and my wife said, 'T.J., I need money for baby formula.' And I said, 'I don't have the money right now. I don't get paid for three days.'"
The couple looked at each other, panicked about what to do. Finally, Assion asked his parents for the money. "It's a scary feeling … not being able to take care of your family."
Law enforcement layoff stories are plentiful in fiscally hard-hit regions like the Rust Belt, but no area of the country is immune. Sworn officers from Sun Belt cities like Tulsa and Phoenix have also grappled with budget cuts. Some cities manage budgets by cutting overtime, contracting out internal affairs investigations, cutting civilian positions, and gutting special units.
"We've gotten rid of community service officers, detectives, mounted patrol. And officers from the detective bureau went into field operations," says Dan Wagner, president of the Toledo Police Patrolman's Association. He says Toledo cut 75 since 2009 and lost 200 officers from attrition.
"We hated to lose them. We lost some good people," says Capt. Jim O'Bryant, spokesperson for the Toledo (Ohio) Police Department. "I don't think any of us ever thought police layoffs would happen."
The pain is evident in Camden, too. "It was never the mayor's desire to lay off any employee, but there was simply no money available to sustain the current staffing," says Robert Corrales of the Camden Mayor's office. "For several months, she informed all bargaining units of the fiscal constraints the city was faced with and tried to negotiate concessions … We were all very sympathetic to all employees who were laid off." Camden was faced with a $26.5 million budget deficit, he says.
Recently, reports have leaked that Camden is thinking of dismantling its entire police department. In the meantime, it has rehired 19 officers using COPS grants and another 50 through other means. But that's not making up for the loss of 160 officers earlier this year, which resulted in a 19-percent rise in violent crime.
Rising crime rates have become a rallying cry for some laid-off officers who are appealing directly to the public to help them regain their jobs. The Stockton, Calif., union resorted to billboards: "Welcome to the second most dangerous city in California. Stop laying off cops."
The truth is that very few citizens want police layoffs. But times are tough and cities and counties are facing shrinking budgets. So police are losing their jobs.
"We don't want to see anyone laid off, but because of the economy, it happens," says Josephine Santaniell, a public information officer for the Newark Police Department.
But while funds are scarce, is public safety threatened during this economic meltdown?[PAGEBREAK]
"Public safety is not affected," says Santaniell. "We have more officers on patrol than before because of the restructuring of our department."
Yet unions say safety is compromised. "You can't see 44 percent of an agency laid off and first response times not affected," says FOP National President Chuck Canterbury, referring to Camden. "Not only were they affected, but officer safety was affected as well … with 44 percent of officers laid off, that's 44 percent less backup. I'm sure the criminal element is glad there's less patrol."
Messages left with the Camden PD were not returned.
John Williamson, FOP President of Lodge #1 in Camden, argues that slashing police budgets in a recession is short sighted. "I don't think they're looking at when the economy dips, unemployment goes up, and crime rate increases. When the economy is hurting, tensions rise at home, domestics increase, people drink more, people resort to using, selling drugs as a quick way to making money."
After the Shock
Still, cop jobs are being cut. And the pink-slipped officers are being forced to cope with loss of income and status and maybe even the loss of a cherished career.
There's really only three options for an officer who has been laid off, says Dr. Jim Nardozzi, dean of the masters of public administration program at Connecticut's Post University and a retired deputy chief of the Waterbury Police Department. "You can wait it out and see if they call … If you can hold out and make ends meet," he says. "Or you can be prepared to pack your bags and move. Or you can pursue a different career."
Nardozzi's advice to officers facing layoffs is to diversify. "Officers come to me with let's say 20 years with a criminal justice degree and say, 'should I get my masters in CJ?' and I say no, you've already got that skill set. It's time to learn something new."
Sgt. Antoine Lane, a 20-year law enforcement veteran of a Texas agency, advises laid-off officers to "find out what departments are hiring" regardless of location. Police departments deal with a geographically diverse application pool, he says. "People in Minnesota will apply to Florida-have gun, will travel."
Nardozzi, who says he feels badly for laid-off officers, recommends they sell themselves as certified and trained, representing a cost savings to another
Lane suggests relocation, but he knows how hard that can be on many officers, especially those with ties to the community. "Their support mechanisms are in place, they have family, daycare, schools, and all these things blind the employee from relocation," he says.
But experienced police officers are valuable in the market; they just have to be willing to go where the work is. "Whether you're an Alaska trooper or Hollywood PD, you should be optimistic about procuring a job," Lane says. "Just be willing to take a hit on relocation or pay."
Lane, who is building a second career as a corporate trainer, says cops are "married to the position" and usually stay in the field. Lane believes another option is "resign yourself to smaller departments … like campus PDs. You may be taking a 50 percent pay cut but you're still a very attractive applicant against traditional applicants," he says.
Others suggest officers not rule out private security as a career. "Officers can have an easier transition into the security management and loss prevention fields. They already have experience with interpersonal communications, interviewing, and investigations," says Philip Farina, CEO for Manta Security Management Recruiters. He suggests career seekers hold membership in security associations such as ASIS International.
Planning for the Worst
Sgt. Glenn Nixon of the Bourbonnais (Ill.) Police Department and a Republican Kankakee County board member facing a 16-percent reduction in the county budget, says we must look at lessons learned from business and cut back effectively. "If you don't perform as a manager, your business will fail."
Nixon believes a good leader is not waiting for the layoff to happen but is proactively prepping an employee. "Good leadership prepares years before any threats of layoffs," Nixon explains.
Nixon stresses education, lifelong goals, and networking, and he advises officers to keep acquiring knowledge and skills. "Everyone in my department who works for me should be refining skills and education. It doesn't mean it has to be criminal justice, it could be chemistry," Nixon says.
Officers should "begin making connections with small business associations or go to community college," Nixon says. "Pull out the positives you own. You have skills. Get involved in community services. Reevaluate your education level. Don't specialize in law enforcement if you don't want to. Accumulate a book with an explanation of certificates."
Dr. Jim Nardozzi, dean of the masters of public administration program at Connecticut's Post University and a retired deputy chief of the Waterbury Police Department, also believes a good leader makes sure that his or her officers can weather the bad times. This means convincing them not to live over their financial heads. "If your salary is $40,000, and you get used to making $80K from overtime and private duty work, and you're living the $80K life and then the economy turns, there's no tax receipts, and the city is cutting officers back to base salary, then what do you do? Don't make decisions based on OT."
Kristine Meldrum Denholm is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. She wrote for ATF's press office for 10 years.