Virginia Beach city leaders: How old is too old to serve in law enforcement?

Virginia Beach Police Chief James Cervera talks to press about details surrounding an active shooter at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center on Friday May 31, 2019. (Southside Daily/Lucretia Cunningham)
Virginia Beach Police Chief James Cervera talks to press about details surrounding an active shooter at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center on Friday May 31, 2019. (Southside Daily/Lucretia Cunningham)

VIRGINIA BEACH — After decades as a home care physical therapist, Mayor Bobby Dyer said Tuesday raising the mandatory retirement age from 65 to 67 for the Virginia Beach Police Department, Fire Department, and Sheriff’s Office would help make the transition easier.

“I see a lot of folks compelled to retire that aren’t ready for it financially or otherwise,” the mayor said. “I understand the angst about going to 70 hence I was thinking about 67 as a compromise that would take us to Social Security and Medicare eligibility to help with other costs — if they can transition to get into that.”

If the police department’s policy stays the same, one firefighter, two sheriff’s deputies, and one police officer would be expected to retire within the next year including police Chief Jim Cervera, who will be turning 65 in April.

In their Aug. 6 meeting, City Council approved an ordinance changing the Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office retirement age from 70 to 65 to “parity” the Virginia Beach Police Department’s policy.

Under that ordinance, two sheriff’s deputies who are older than 65, will be given a three-year grace period (or until they turn 70), so they will not be forced to retire under the existing policy.

Kathy Hieatt, spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, said the original intent of the ordinance was to rectify the pay gap between police and sworn deputies.

“We’re committed and making the transition to mirror police pay, benefits, career progression and rank structure — the parity for retirement age was one of several changes,” she said.

Hieatt said the previous ordinance required that sheriff’s office’s starting pay be within 10 percent of the police department’s starting pay. But the pay disparity study identified the actual disparity throughout the ranks ranged from 2-21 percent, depending on rank and years of service (the average was 14%).

RELATED STORY: Sheriff’s deputies and police officers don’t get paid the same — but that could change

As the conversation came to the forefront, several City Council members have asked “why not increase the police retirement age to 70?” Or, as Councilwoman Barabara Henley would suggest, scraping the mandatory retirement age altogether and classify it as a means of “age discrimination.”

Sheriff Ken Stolle spoke in front of City Council at the Aug. 6 meeting and said he wouldn’t take a stance on whether changing the age for the police department was a good or bad thing, but did offer some insight into mandatory retirement ages for law enforcement agencies across the state.

“For state troopers and most law enforcement agencies in Virginia the age is 70 but the national average is about or less than 60 to 65 years old,” he said. “Virginia is an anomaly, it has a higher retirement age.”

And, as agreed, City Council continued the discussion in their Tuesday Workshop introducing possible concerns like assessing fitness, tracking injuries or sick days, and how promotion progression will be affected if officers are allowed to stay in positions up until their 70th birthday or longer.

Dyer said before making a decision, council would look to other similar localities for best practices and collect more data and metrics on the topic but also as a health care professional knows people now aren’t aging like they used to.

“Life span has changed over the last couple of decades, what’s 65 today is not what it was in 1965 when the people who made that rule were born in 1900,” he said. “Life is better, people are living longer, they’re more robust going forward, but I’m suggesting a compromise of only a couple years.”

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