LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - They are the Louisville cops who've been around the block. They know the people, the law and the streets.
But WAVE 3 News found out many are taking all that experience somewhere else, leaving some of the most crime-ridden areas with less-experienced officers.
For the last few years, the number of officers leaving LMPD has continued to rise. Add to that the elimination of an upcoming recruit class and the department now expects there to be about 60 fewer officers on the street.
Skylar Graudick, who has six years of experience with LMPD, even represented the department in Frankfort as part of the Fraternal Order of Police. But he called it quits in May.
“It just doesn’t seem to be worth it, quite frankly,” Graudick said.
He is just one of 119 officers who have left the department in the past year. That’s nearly 10 percent of the entire force.
Many more are expected to retire before the end of August because of how their pensions would be affected.
For the past couple of years, WAVE 3 News Troubleshooters have kept track of the number of LMPD officers retiring or quitting the department. The numbers show a growing trend seen since fiscal year 2015, when 83 officers either resigned or retired. That number increased to 147 in 2018.
(The graph below shows the number of officers that have either quit or retired in the past year by rank.)
WAVE 3 News’ investigation found a number of officers who have retired, quit or are going to, or have applied to other departments, like Middletown or Shepherdsville police.
"At the end of the day, it's the citizens of the community that are going to suffer," Graudick said.
He said his reasons for leaving include low morale within LMPD and feeling like his character could be attacked for simply doing his job, without anyone having his back.
"The safest thing you can do on LMPD is not do anything," Graudick said. "The people who don't do anything never get in trouble."
He also points to recent policy changes, like those affecting traffic stops, which he said could put officers in greater danger.
More than half of those who left since last July quit. The rest retired. Some re-appeared in other local departments, like the newly established Middletown Police Department.
(The interactive below shows which local police departments have hired former LMPD officers since last year, and the departments’ starting pay.)
NOTE: Several departments offer additional incentives, such as an added $4,000 for KLEFPF Certification. KLEFPF pay is not reflected in the salaries above. The base pay is after academy graduation. Other incentives vary by department. They include low health insurance costs, step raises, court pay, uniform or equipment allowances, life insurance, 401K or IRA contributions, or short term disability, to name a few.
According to a salary analysis conducted by the River City FOP, Louisville Metro Police ranks in the 20th percentile for officer salary when compared with surrounding cities, including Jeffersontown, Shively, Shelby County, St. Matthews and Jeffersonville. The study used the median officer salary. The department ranked in the 30th percentile when compared to sister cities such as Nashville and Cincinnati for officer salaries.
“All of my officers have their start and all of their training and experience in Louisville Metro Police,” Middletown Police Chief Rob Herman, another LMPD retiree, said.
Herman said it's a hiring frenzy that only benefits the people of Middletown. The experience his officers have adds up to more than 120 years.
He's gotten applications from high-ranking officers and detectives wanting to leave the state's biggest police department.
"It's a little bit, um, sad," he said. "It's like going back to your old high school and it's not the award-winning school that it was before."
Herman said community policing in Middletown offers less stress for more pay. The starting salary is $52,000, compared to $39,185 at LMPD.
Other local departments, like Shepherdsville, have raised their pay and spruced up their benefits package with affordable health care, $180 a month for a family plan which includes dental and vision coverage.
Shepherdsville Police Chief Rick McCubbin has hired five former LMPD officers so far. He said that for eight spots, he’s received about 50 applications, mostly from current or former LMPD officers.
"We want them because we police out here still, and that's what most of these officers want to do," he said.
The chief said he believes officers want to come to his department because they’ll feel supported.
McCubbin also is a former LMPD officer.
“It’s nauseating," McCubbin said of the exodus of LMPD officers. “I’d never thought I’d live to see the day that the Louisville Police Department would become a stepping stone department instead of a destination department.”
LMPD spokeswoman Jesse Halladay said recruiting and retention are things the department tries to work on.
"It's a challenge we don't have all the answers to," Halladay said, adding that Louisville is part of a national recruiting problem affecting metropolitan departments.
Halladay said she believes the large numbers of people leaving since last year is in part because of concerns over recent pension changes.
She also said times have changed.
"There's a shift in how people think about careers," Halladay said. "You don't necessarily have 20-year careers anymore."
WAVE 3 News asked Halladay why officers aren't just retiring, but rather choosing to work somewhere else.
"I think that's normal in terms of people leaving companies," she said. "They may work for a health care company for five or 10 years and then they go to another health care company."
Louisville's finances are no secret, leaving LMPD having to compete with departments that are paying significantly more. Halladay said that's something LMPD Chief Steve Conrad wishes he could offer, too.
"We're just doing what we can to try to get people in the door, vetted, have quality applicants, not lower our standards," she said.
In 2016, the department lowered the requirement to apply from a four-year to a two-year college degree. That’s something that had been in place since the city and the county departments merged in 2003.
Halladay would not comment on whether the no-confidence votes against Conrad by the FOP and the Metro Council in 2016 and 2017, or morale issues have played roles in officers leaving, saying it would be inappropriate to make a blanket statement about officers’ sentiment.
She also said they have not seen any evidence that the new traffic stop policy has had an effect on the number of people leaving the department.
Halladay said departments have to adjust to the changing times and re-evaluate how their recruiting and retention methods work, as well as whether their pension systems work.
Since 2015, 473 people signed up to go through LMPD's recruit academy. Of those, only 383 were actually hired. Meanwhile, the total number of officers who've left the department since fiscal year 2015 is 538, leaving a total of 155 fewer officers.
Graudick's concerns are more pointed; he said he worries about the future of the city.
"It's definitely politics over public safety," he said.
Graudick also said he’s done with police work after his experience at LMPD, focusing on a new family instead.