SALT LAKE CITY — In the wake of the death of Provo police officer Joseph Shinners, Utah lawmakers are publicly talking about reworking the state’s public safety retirement system to better compensate officers for the risk they take in the line of duty.
Utah police officers saw their retirement plans significantly changed nine years ago. Before, officers were promised 50 percent of their income for life if they retired after 20 years of service. A bill passed in 2010, however, lowered that offer to 37.5 percent of their income after 25 years; a change some believe helped bring on Utah’s current police shortage.
When KSL Newsradio invited Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, onto the Dave & Dujanovic show to discuss the police shortage and officer Shinners’ death, Ray surprised them by announcing that lawmakers are already drafting a plan to restore the police retirement program.
New risks for Utah police
The public safety retirement program was slashed in the midst of the Great Recession. The economy was struggling nationwide, and every state, Ray said, was under serious pressure to either cut costs on retirement plans or see their bond ratings downgraded.
“We were a billion dollars upside down,” Ray told Dave & Dujanovic, and few were willing to wait for the market to recover. Our police officers’ retirement plan was seriously cut to make the numbers add up.
Ray believes that decision was a mistake. He said that the state “jumped the gun” when they cut down the retirement plan and that we’ve been seeing the consequences ever since.
Applications from new police officers have dropped by more than 50 percent in Salt Lake City since the retirement program was changed, and some have argued that the change is no coincidence.
For his part, Ray credited most of the problems police officers face today to increased scrutiny on police officers in the media instead, which he believes has put officers’ lives in jeopardy.
“They’re afraid to shoot. They’re afraid to protect themselves,” Ray told Dave & Dujanovic.
He says that police officers have told him they’ve hesitated before taking a shot that could save lives out of a fear of what would happen if the pulled the trigger.
“That’s getting people killed now,” Ray says. “This is what we get as a result of all that unnecessary — I think, a lot of the time — protests against law enforcement.”
Bringing back the retirement program
To Ray, cutting the public security retirement program was just an insult to police officers who are already struggling with so many challenges in the line of duty.
“Worst thing we could’ve done to law enforcement,” Ray said. “We took away their retirement, pretty much.”
Police officers in Utah, Ray said, are already underpaid. With low pay, high risk and an unprecedented amount of public scrutiny, Ray believes that it’s past time they got back their retirement package.
He said Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry; Rep. James Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville; and Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, are already working on a new plan. Perry is also a lieutenant with the Utah Highway Patrol.
Their bill, Ray said, is “kind of a compromise.” Officers would still have to work for 25 years to qualify for retirement, rather than the old 20-year minimum. However, they would once again receive 50 percent of their pay instead of 37.5 percent.
“I’d rather have the 20 (year minimum) for law enforcement,” Ray admitted, “but at this point, we’ll take what we can get to at least move it forward a little bit.”
Ray did not say when the revision would be put forward, and it remains to be seen whether it will be passed. Ray was hopeful, however, that the new bill will pass through the Legislature and police officers in Utah will get back the benefits they once were promised.