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Captain of controlled chaos deals with lower pay

Forest Grove Police Captain Mike Herb struggles with most taxing period of my career


by: COURTESY PHOTO: MIKE HERB - Mike Herb takes a rare free moment to play basketball with son Hayden, 12, and daughter Hanna, 17. Herb is supposed to work an eight-hour day with weekends and holidays off. But he is on call 24-7, which is why he spent part of Christmas 2011 with an injured officer instead of with his family and their visiting relatives. It’s not as exciting. And it pays less.

That was the upside-down recruiting pitch top-level sergeant Mike Herb had to consider in August 2011, when the Forest Grove Police Department was desperate to fill one of its two captain positions.

So why did he take the job?

Because he loved the city and the department.

Because somebody needed to step up to the plate.

Because it was only an interim position.

And because he had no idea how much worse it would get in October 2012.

“If I knew what was coming ... wow,” said Herb, who in his 23 years with the department has dealt with active shooters, emotional and physical stress as a homicide detective and at least one crazy schedule that shifted back and forth from days to nights.

But the past four months have been “the most taxing period of my career,” said Herb, whose job includes serving as public information officer.

The "controlled chaos" as Herb calls it, hits home, literally. On the recent Martin Luther King holiday, for example, instead of barbecuing with his family and visiting Forest Park with his daughter as planned, he spent the day dealing with the aftermath of a cop shootout that had kept him up till 4 a.m. the night before.

The turmoil will continue for at least a month or two while the city tries to replace Operations Captain Aaron Ashbaugh, who retired last week.

Grew up here

Herb, the 46-year-old whose dry humor lights up the News-Times’ “Police Log,” grew up in Forest Grove, on 15th Place, and attended Joseph Gale Elementary School. He is devoted to the police department. He sympathizes with city officials, who must meet fiscal responsibilities while the town is still emerging from a recession.

Herb is also a case study in the problem of "compaction" — pay inequities between administrators and the people they supervise. Police departments across the country are struggling with the issue.

“Realistically, if somebody’s going to take a pay cut for having to take greater responsbility, that’s pretty difficult,” said former Forest Grove Police Captain Jeff Williams.

There’s more to it in the case of Herb, who says the department’s last normal month was December 2010, when all four administrative positions — chief, two captains and a support unit supervisor — were filled with experienced people.by: COURTESY PHOTO: MIKE HERB - Mike Herb applies a temporary tattoo of a Forest Grove Police Department patch while volunteering at the annual Corn Roast event in Forest Grove. As an administrative captain, Herbs duties range from reviewing budgets to making life and death decisions at 2 a.m.

Then Williams took a captain job in Beaverton.

Forest Grove tried twice to fill his position. Not only did nobody inside the department apply — partly because of the pay inequity, Herb says — but even the outside finalists pulled out. Seven months after Williams left, and with the support-unit supervisor also leaving, then-Chief Kerry Aleshire sent his officers an urgent request for an interim captain.

Herb didn’t want a desk job. He was a detective sergeant at the time, involved in undercover operations, solving a lot of cases, loving the work — and making more money than he would as a captain.

The city acknowledged this problem by raising the captain position’s base salary. Appreciating that effort, Herb took the job even though other factors still made it a pay cut. (See story below.)

Marketing good work

Over the next nine months, Herb realized there were some things he liked about the job. After years of seeing the public — and even the police administrators — focus primarily on officers’ mistakes, the tech-savvy Herb enjoyed marketing their good work.

He created a Facebook page, where the department's crime-fighting successes and charitable activities are now seen by 1,500 followers. He started writing the “Police Log,” now one of the News-Times’ most popular features.

“He excels in the area of communication skills,” Ashbaugh said last week.

Herb also liked caring for his colleagues, making sure they got the right equipment, changing policies that had exasperated him as a patrol officer.

With his colleagues' encouragement, Herb went permanent last May, hoping to minimize the turmoil when Aleshire left for Beaverton two days later.

Things were busy but bearable. Herb and Ashbaugh helped orient an interim chief and search for a new one. Chief Janie Schutz finally arrived and took the reins Oct. 1.

Then, half a month later, a Cornelius Police Department scandal ensnared Forest Grove, adding extra burdens to Herb’s schedule. Ashbaugh, peripherally involved in the Cornelius affair, went on paid administrative leave Oct. 31.

Trying to do two captains’ normal jobs at once — as well as orient a new chief from out of state — Herb’s hours shot up to 10, sometimes 12 a day, none of it compensated with overtime pay.

He was hoping for a relatively placid period to get him through the staff shortage. Instead, on Dec. 21, as Chief Schutz traveled to North Carolina for a prearranged, two-week Christmas visit with her family, news broke of the Newtown, Conn., school shootings. Local parents panicked, and Herb — minus both his chief and his fellow captain — added hours of school security-related meetings and trainings to his schedule. That still hasn’t died down.

Cop shootout

On top of it, the next month, an unprecedented cop-on-cop shootout led to a record staff shortage as five Forest Grove officers went on paid administrative leave for several weeks. Also on leave was Support Unit Supervisor Lisa Cannon, whose husband was involved in the shootout.

Herb and the chief were swamped with meetings, media attention, procedural paperwork and filling in for Cannon and Ashbaugh--right as a new burst of graffiti sparked a public outcry.

“It was a perfect storm,” said Herb, whose reward for weathering the months of chaos has been ... less income. He recently had to write a letter to his mortgage-refinancing lender about why his 2012 wages were lower than in 2011, explaining how getting promoted resulted in lower pay.

And that’s not the only problem. Herb often wakes at 3 a.m., his mind racing with responsibilities. He has a hard time focusing when his children ask for homework help. He can’t play basketball with his son like they used to because “I’m not home till 9 or 10 at night and it’s dark and raining.”

If the city can't find a competent sergeant soon, Herb's lower income will be less worrisome than the unrelieved stress on his family, he said.

“There are some things you don’t get back in life.”

Problems

The problem was so bad a couple years ago that sergeants would stop by Forest Grove Police Captain Aaron Ashbaugh’s office just to taunt him with their higher paychecks.

“It was demoralizing,” Ashbaugh said.

Pay equity wasn’t an issue for captains when Ashbaugh became one in 2000. Back then, it was sergeants who barely made more than the patrol officers they supervised.

But when sergeants joined the Forest Grove Police Officers Association collective-bargaining unit, their pay increased about 20 percent in three years.

Now it’s the captain job nobody wants.

City Manager Michael Sykes said Forest Grove’s captain compensation is comparable to similar cities in the region.

But the “market median” the city aims for includes a five-point spread on either side of the actual median, said Human Resources Manager Brenda Camilli.

Forest Grove sergeants are 4 percent above the median. Captains are 3 percent below, she said.

In 2008-09, sergeants made $5,740 a month at the highest of six pay levels for the position. After four years of collective bargaining, that number is now $6,810 — a 19 percent increase. On top of that, sergeants get incentive pay for extras such as state certification, Spanish fluency, detective work, a bachelor's degree and so on. Incentive pay is now capped at 14 percent of base pay, but sergeants who go that far can make $7,763 a month, not counting overtime.

And overtime does count, especially if called in on their days off, when sergeants earn a minimum of four hours worth of overtime, even if their meeting or court date takes only an hour.

Herb's not knocking their pay. "I believe these officers and sergeants earn every penny of it. I really do. It's a tough job." Herb simply feels their supervisors should earn more.

Instead, captains' top salaries increased by less than sergeants' over the past four years, moving up 14 percent, from $6,837 to $7,781 a month. Unlike sergeants, captains get no incentive pay, so that’s all they can make. There is no overtime pay either, despite being routinely called in on weekends, holidays and in the middle of the night.

With overtime or cashed-in holidays, a sergeant's income can easily surpass a captain's.

One solution, Ashbaugh said, might be to state in the city charter that managers must make a certain percent more base pay than those they supervise.

Other cities have given captains incentive pay for certification.

"They were very open to listening," said Police Chief Janie Schutz, who discussed the problem with city officials Monday. "We started to talk about possible solutions. I understand totally they only have one pot of money."



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