Note: This story was last updated at 12 p.m. Oct. 16.
It probably wasn’t the explanation that many expected, but pay was cited most often as the reason for turnover and low morale in the Oak Ridge Police Department, according to a report released Thursday.
Some have pinned most of the blame for the department’s woes—or perceived woes, depending upon your perspective—on Oak Ridge Police Chief Jim Akagi, and they had called for an investigation of the chief earlier this year on several different fronts.
Among those pressing for an investigation was Oak Ridge City Council member Trina Baughn. She and others had raised questions about the chief’s temperament, including whether he has outbursts and is vindictive, and what Baughn suggested is a high turnover rate.
But the City Council instead approved a review of the ORPD that focused on morale, turnover, and administrative policies. In March, Council hired the Municipal Technical Advisory Service at the University of Tennessee to conduct the six-month review, which was first proposed by Council member Kelly Callison. MTAS presented its findings in a 20-page report presented to the Oak Ridge City Council in a special work session on Thursday.
The report identified a primary culprit familiar to many workers: pay. But as officers have pointed out, they, unlike most other workers, face danger on a daily basis.
Most of those interviewed by MTAS thought that ORPD salaries are not suitable for retaining good employees, MTAS consultant Rex Barton told Council members Thursday. Whatever raises have been given in the past few years have been outstripped by the rise in the cost of benefits, Barton said.
Besides pay, other themes that emerged during interviews with 54 people from April to September were equipment and technology (this was regarded as a positive area), inconsistencies, Akagi’s demeanor, and trust.
“All five of these issues appeared to have significant impact on participants’ perceptions of morale, turnover, and administrative policies,” the MTAS report said.
The police chief and his attorney seemed pleased with the results of the MTAS review, while some of Akagi’s critics were not.
Those who might have been waiting for MTAS to issue a call to replace the police chief—a few people, though not a majority, reportedly mentioned it during interviews—were likely disappointed. MTAS wasn’t asked to call for removing the chief, Barton said.
It’s not clear if the MTAS report will end the divisive months-long debate that started in January and has created factions, including in the Police Department, with some supporting the chief, even if they acknowledge that improvements could be made, and others continuing to push for an aggressive investigation and sometimes calling for the chief’s removal.
Regarding pay, MTAS said there is more than one issue. Two of them are the lack of merit increases and pay compression. Pay compression is when a new employee with little or no experience starts at the same pay rate as a more senior worker.
Merit pay, MTAS said, is mandated in the Oak Ridge City Charter.
The agency said ORPD employees believe they are underpaid compared to other surrounding agencies.
“There is a perception that pay is better elsewhere, and this may be part of the reason for turnover,” the MTAS report said.
Barton and Margaret Norris, the other MTAS consultant, said they heard repeatedly from ORPD employees that the “grass was greener” in Anderson County, Knoxville, and at the local U.S. Department of Energy facilities.
“Barton and Norris were told that another city in the area pays 100 percent of employee and family health insurance premiums, while the city of Oak Ridge assesses part of the premium costs to employees,” the report said. “Whether this is completely accurate or not, the perception is that employees at the department are not being compensated fairly, and based on this belief, Police Department employees express objections about this (low morale) or depart for one of the other agencies (turnover).”
On Thursday, MTAS gave 23 recommendations to the City Council. Here are a few specific recommendations related to pay, demeanor, and inconsistencies:
- consider a classification and compensation study and adequately fund the results,
- re-examine the city’s merit system for compliance and funding,
- tell employees each year how their pay and benefits compare to regional agencies,
- have the city manager closely monitor the chief’s conduct and interaction with employees, and
- educate employees on the city’s grievance policies and appeals processes. Despite the concerns that have been raised, MTAS said there haven’t been very many grievances filed since Akagi started. “We think it’s interesting that there aren’t many grievances filed over the last four years,” Barton said. “If issues are coming up, they ought to be grieved, rather than festering.”
Some of the proposals, such as the compensation study, are likely to cost money.
“We can’t fix eight of these problems without more funding,” City Council member Charlie Hensley said.
At least one officer and a former officer didn’t seem pleased with the report or with MTAS repeatedly citing employee perceptions. While discussing perceptions, MTAS said they had heard certain concerns from current and former employees but couldn’t always validate them.
“A lot of what we’ve talked about is perception,” Barton said. “Perception can best be addressed by communication.”
But it’s not perception, said Oak Ridge Police Department Detective John Criswell, who is president of the FOP Lodge No. 1, and secretary and on the executive board of the Anderson County chapter of Police Benevolent Association.
“It’s facts, but it’s not facts that can be proven,” Criswell said. He said the majority of the people who have left the department have departed because of the chief.
“I don’t know if this report was useful,” Criswell said, adding that he doesn’t think it was a fair representation of the facts.
“Perception is reality,” said retired ORPD Lieutenant Jack Mansfield, who has been critical of Akagi. He objected to the MTAS report—there is “no real meat here,” Mansfield said—and at least one of the proposals: having the city manager monitor the police chief.
“Do you think the chief is going to have one of his outbursts when the city’s manager’s down there?” Mansfield asked.
The chief’s attorney, Tasha Blakney, said she didn’t think there were any surprises in the report, and it’s difficult to question the methodology, expertise, and experience of MTAS.
“I hope it closes a long and unnecessarily expensive chapter in the history of Oak Ridge,” Blakney said of the report. “Perception is important because it can impact morale.”
“This has been an unnecessary distraction for the officers,” Akagi said. “It has absolutely affected morale and I suspect contributed to turnover.”
But, “I think there were enough suggestions on a lot of issues for a lot of people to work on a lot of different things, and I am one of those people,” Akagi said. The first step is to read and digest the report, the chief said.
Barton said the Oak Ridge Police Department has a significantly higher turnover than other agencies, but it’s been high for at least eight years, or since at least four years before the new chief arrived.
“It is high, but it’s been high for a long time,” Barton said.
The MTAS report showed a 51 percent turnover rate between July 1, 2011, and June 30, 2015, the four years under Akagi. The turnover rate in the four years before Akagi started, under former Police Chief David Beams, was 46 percent. The former police chief did raise concerns about turnover in budget meetings in the mid- to late-2000s, when many Oak Ridge officers reportedly left to go work at local DOE sites, although that doesn’t appear to be as big of a concern today.
To learn more about turnover, MTAS recommended an exit interview with every willing employee as he or she leaves.
“Current discussions of the reasons for employees leaving usually involve anecdotal stories that are often second-hand,” the report said. “A comprehensive program of documented exit interviews will counter any misconceptions about the reasons for turnover.”
“We’ve got to make sure we’re keeping those employees here,” City Council member Chuck Hope said. “We really need to find the answers to that turnover rate.”
Any pay changes for officers that could be considered now would likely require approval from city administrators and the Oak Ridge City Council. And officials have said any discussion of pay increases for officers would likely lead to a discussion of what’s fair for other city employees.
But, “we still need to compensate our police officers to the fullest extent,” Hope said.
MTAS said many of the people that it interviewed for its report said the chief becomes angry easily, overreacts to situations, and is “verbally abusive toward Police Department staff.” Some participants mentioned a stapler incident where “presumably the chief got angry and threw a stapler from his desk toward the hallway,” the report said.
“No one with actual knowledge indicated that the stapler was thrown directly at any individual, or in anger about/toward anyone,” MTAS said. “It appeared to MTAS that this has grown to become an urban legend within the department,” although one officer objected to labeling it a legend.
Still, “while many spoke negatively about the chief’s demeanor, there were individuals who hailed the chief’s caring for employees and their families in need,” the report said. “Furthermore, some people stated they had not witnessed the chief exhibiting the previously mentioned negative behaviors.”
But enough concerns had been raised that Barton and Norris recommended that the city manager closely monitor the chief’s conduct and interaction with employees, both in the office and out in the field “to determine if employee concerns can be validated.”
MTAS said it also heard from employees who mentioned inconsistencies in personnel-related matters such as hiring, promotions, and disciplinary action; alleged favoritism in assignment and promotional opportunities (some employees attributed these concerns to “sour grapes” over not getting the promotion or assignment); and alleged inconsistencies in policy application, including by the chief, who some said had made traffic stops in an unmarked vehicle and engaged in high-speed pursuits for non-violent offenses.
“MTAS cannot substantiate the validity of these claims, but again stresses the impact of the perception of these claims,” the report said of some of the claims, while pointing out that it was not investigating others.
Barton and Norris said most of those interviewed spoke very positively about the department’s equipment and technology.
“In particular, the equipment, including fleet, has improved significantly since the arrival of Chief Akagi,” the report said.
But there have been some changes not endorsed by employees, including replacing shotguns with patrol rifles. And employees would like the city to consider expanding the eligibility for take-home vehicles to include officers living outside the city, MTAS said. Take-home eligibility is one of the reasons offered by the city to help explain some recent officer departures.
Some of Akagi’s critics continue to say it’s the chief.
“The person who is in charge of the agency is the one in charge of morale,” Mansfield said.
“They’re leaving because of the work environment,” Criswell said.
But some other city staff members have cited, among other enticements, better health insurance benefits that are reportedly available elsewhere and lighter workloads in other cities.
Earlier this year, the MTAS review was expected to cost up to an estimated $27,000, roughly. The 54 interviews included 18 current staff members (who were employees at the time of the interview and randomly chosen by MTAS), 12 former employees, 14 current staff members who volunteered to be interviewed, five Council members (also volunteers), the city manager, the police chief, and three command-level staffers. Interviews were conducted at the Law Enforcement Innovation Center in Oak Ridge.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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