GAO: Capitol Police pay, benefits structure not to blame for attrition

Wednesday - 1/25/2012, 10:45pm EST

Federal News Radio reporter Emily Kopp interviews Eileen Lawrence, director of GAO's homeland security and justice team

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For nearly a decade, some lawmakers and union officials have raised concerns about the United States Capitol Police's pay and retirement benefits, arguing they don't stack up to other federal police forces and make recruiting and retaining difficult.

In 2010, the U.S. Capitol Police Labor Committee, USCP's union, cited inadequate retirement benefits as the main reason for employees leaving the force and called for half a dozen changes to benefits.

But a new Government Accountability Office report finds the hand wringing over stingy retirement benefits may be unwarranted.

Based on interviews with human-resources officials, senior officers and executives and a review of agency documents, GAO compared the USCP force with nine other federal police forces, including the FBI Police Force and the Secret Service uniformed division.

It compared the various police forces on three fronts:

  • Pay and benefits structure, entry-level salary and job duties

  • Levels of attrition and the use of certain human capital tools in recruiting and retaining officers

  • Level of retirement income currently provided
Enhanced pay and benefits, more varied job duties

The GAO report found that Capitol Police officers are entitled to enhanced retirement benefits (owing to their classification as law-enforcement officers), a higher minimum starting salary and enjoy a wider variety of duties compared to the other federal police forces surveyed.

Minimum starting salaries at USCP ranged from $52,020 to $55,653. Along with the Supreme Court police, that ranked among the highest.

Also, Capitol Police have a wider range of duties than other federal forces, according to GAO — from protecting members of Congress to securing buildings.

"For example, USCP officials stated that their main focus is protecting life and property, and thus, in addition to routinely protecting members of Congress, they also protect members' families throughout the entire United States, as authorized, as well as congressional buildings, parks, and thoroughfares." the GAO report noted.

Low levels of attrition

GAO auditors reported a relatively low rate of attrition, and according to the report, USCP officials reported no difficulty in recruitment.

The official attrition rate of 6.5 percent was lower than six of the nine federal police forces surveyed. In fact, because of the poor economic climate, USCP officials said officers were mostly staying put.

Similarly, GAO's analysis found no trouble filling vacancies: For every open position, the Capitol Police attracted an average of 26 qualified applicants.

Further, USCP officials didn't cite retirement benefits as a reason why officers left. Instead, officials told GAO most officers leave the force because of personal reasons. In fact, most of the Capitol Police officers cited quality-of-life as one of the main reasons to stay, followed by pay and job security.

In combating attrition, many forces use a variety of "human-capital flexibilities," such as the ability to offer cash bonuses to high performers and relocation privileges. GAO noted the USCP was alone — of the nine forces surveyed — in not offering cash-performance bonuses, but officials told GAO they didn't need to do so in order to keep up in recruiting and retaining its workforce.

Extending the retirement age

GAO did find itself in agreement with critics of USCP's benefits in at least one area: extending the mandatory retirement age.

USCP officers are currently required to retire at age 57, with some exceptions. GAO found extending the age limit to 60 would "have a minimal impact on costs to the federal government and could improve officers' retirement benefits" by allowing them to continue to invest in the Thrift Savings Plan, the federal 401(k)-style retirement savings system.

Union responses

The Capitol Police, along with four other federal forces, did not provide GAO with written comments to be included in the report.

In a written response included in the report, James Konczos, chairman of the USCP Labor Committee, reiterated the committee's call for changes related to pay and benefits.

For example, the committee called for the pay scale to be compressed so that employees reach their maximum base pay in a shorter period of time — about 20 years. While GAO has said doing so would increase costs, the committee proposed taking the savings the police force would see if it allowed officers to work until age 60, and using it to compress the pay scale.