LAKELAND — Dozens of Lakeland police officers took to the city’s streets on Monday afternoon not to ensure the peace and safety of a rally, but to hold one of their own.
Off-duty officers and their family members lined the sides of East Orange Street outside City Hall on Monday afternoon bearing signs saying “Save your police department” and “City Manager neglects public safety.”
There were no megaphones or loud chants, no disturbance of the peace. Individuals waved from the sidewalk as passing drivers honked in show support. Many carried Thin Blue Line flags that show support for law enforcement.
The officers hoped their rally would bring increased awareness to a growing rift between the Lakeland Police Department and City Hall. More arrived and moved inside the building, packing the City Commission chamber to standing room only.
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The police department’s unionized members — officers, sergeants and lieutenants — have been working without a contract since Sept. 31, 2019. Negotiations between the union and city officials have dragged on for more than two years with no clear end in sight.
“We don’t feel they’ve been given the full story since Jan. 1, 2019,” said K-9 Officer Ryan Back, the Fraternal Order of Police president.
More than half of Lakeland officers make less than $50K a year
The main points of contention between the police and city officials are wages and benefits. Lakeland’s officers have worked without a pay raise since 2019, according to Bill Lawless, a spokesman for Florida State Fraternal Order of Police that has represented the police union since October.
More than 50% of Lakeland’s police officers are making less than $50,000 a year, Back said. Another key point of contention is the city’s 19-step system, which takes union members about 20 years to reach top pay while the statewide average is between 10 and 12 years.
Gretchen Ceranic, a member of LPD’s Citizen Advisory Board, was expected to read a letter in support of the union’s request at the City Commission’s 3 p.m. meeting Monday, after The Ledger’s print deadline.
Commissioner Phillip Walker asked for an update on the status of contract negotiations at the commission’s Friday agenda study.
City Manager Shawn Sherrouse told officials that the negotiations had been largely on hold since last summer as the police union switched its representation from the Police Benevolent Association to joining with the Florida State Fraternal Order of Police. Sherrouse previously led the city’s negotiation team in 2019, before becoming city manager.
“The first negotiations occurred last week between the city and FOP,” he said Friday.
This statement surprised several police officers who were live streaming the meeting, Back said. The union said it has sat down with the city staff three times so far this year: March 9 and 10, and more recently March 25.
“Since beginning negotiations with the FOP in March, the City has proposed additional offers in an effort to reach an agreement with our police officers. The City of Lakeland fully supports and appreciates our law enforcement officers and we hope to reach a fair agreement for the community in the very near future,” read the City of Lakeland’s statement prior to Monday’s commission meeting.
Lawless, Lakeland’s FOP representative, said that he felt the city’s last round of negotiations was “disingenuous.” Lawless said he had been seeking a one-year successor contract to get officers backpay from October 2019 to September 2020.
Instead, Lawless alleges at the end of three days the city’s team made a counteroffer of a three-year contract starting in January 2021. The offered a pay raise of at least 5% for all union members for the first year, Lawless said, but no guarantee on wages or benefits for the next two years and no back pay.
“We try to keep the negotiations low key,” he said. “We try not to involve other people and didn’t want it to feel that we were trying to intimidate them. We want to keep it as fair and equitable as possible, but it’s clear now that’s not going to work.”
The next scheduled negotiation session is scheduled for 1 p.m. Friday at Lakeland Electric’s administrative building. The meeting is open to the public.
Sara-Megan Walsh can be reached at [email protected] or 863-802-6545. Follow on Twitter @SaraWalshFl.