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Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul, center, speaks on item 77 concerning a study for preparation of a total compensation study for municipal police classifications of his department during a meeting of the metro council, Wednesday, April 25, 2018, at City Hall in Baton Rouge, La. With him are deputy chief Jonny Dunnam, left, and Union president Sgt. Bryan Taylor.

Paying Baton Rouge police officers at rates comparable to peer agencies would cost more than $20 million a year, according to preliminary findings from an ongoing department pay study. 

The final report — now long overdue — is expected to be released in coming months. But the consultants conducting the study have already drawn some conclusions from their research: that Baton Rouge police officers are paid at significantly lower rates than officers at peer agencies and turnover has increased while recruiting has become more difficult over the past several years.

"The reality is that this is not something that just happened (overnight)," said Christel Slaughter, CEO of SSA Consultants. "So what we see is this slide backwards that at some point we'll have to deal with." 

The $20 million figure refers to increases in salary, benefits and retirement. An increase in salary alone would add about $14.6 million annually — an increase of about 30 percent over the current annual cost of $49 million, according to numbers presented at Wednesday's Metro Council meeting.

The Metro Council voted in April to hire Slaughter's firm for $39,500 — more than a city officer's starting pay — to evaluate BRPD compensation. That analysis was initially estimated to take 90 days. Now more than six months later, Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul said he wants people to know that he's responsible for the delay. 

Paul said he's had questions and clarifications that have held up the process, including about manpower and whether the department's current allotment of officers is appropriate. He said the final report will address that issue.

Preliminary findings show that salaries for BRPD officers fall woefully short, with starting pay about 29 percent below peer agencies. The discrepancies often increase the longer an officer remains in the same rank, which Slaughter said can account for some officers choosing to leave the department after several years of service there. 

Slaughter said the study compares BRPD to several agencies both locally and across the country, including agencies in Tennessee and Texas. But the salary and benefit estimates arose from comparisons to four Louisiana agencies: the New Orleans Police Department, Louisiana State Police, Gonzales Police Department and East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office. She said those four agencies were chosen in part because BRPD officers have left the department for jobs there. 

Preliminary findings also show notable increases in resignations from BRPD within the past several years and that recruiting efforts draw fewer candidates.

Paul said he hopes that increasing officer compensation would bring a "higher quality of candidates" to the department. He acknowledged the hefty price tag but said expectations for the agency could rise as a result — noting that "we recognize we can be a more professional organization in everything we do."

Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome wasn't at the council meeting but her staff read a statement saying she has reviewed the findings and is "committed to addressing the police pay issues, including reviewing efficiencies of the department and city government."

"The pay gap accrued over decades," the statement says. "It would not be as challenging if funding had been previously (made) available."

Neither consultants nor department leaders would give an exact estimate for when the completed report will be released. Officers have said previously they're concerned about the delay, which has put union contract negotiations on hold. The current contract is more than 10 years old. Officials agreed in July to wait for the end of the study before renegotiating the contract, which outlines officers' wages, hours and employment guidelines.

Follow Lea Skene on Twitter, @lea_skene.