tulsa police

City officials on Thursday proposed a change to the Tulsa Police Department’s promotion policy for corporals and sergeants. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

City officials Thursday presented a proposal to the Civil Service Commission that would change the Police Department’s promotion policy for certain ranks with the intent of eliminating the practice of officers paying superiors to retire.

The proposed policy change would establish a set number of corporals and sergeants eligible for promotion and would keep the list in place until all eligible officers have been promoted. The process would then begin again.

The number of corporals and sergeants eligible for promotion would be equal to the average number of such promotions over the last 10 times promotions were made. Those averages currently stand at nine for sergeants and seven corporals.

Under the existing process, officers seeking to become corporals or sergeants are tested each year and a new list of eligible candidates is established based on test scores. This process has led to a practice sometimes referred to as “buying stripes,” where some officers seeking promotions have paid other officers to retire early so as to move up on the promotion list before it expired.

The proposed policy change, which the Civil Service Commission did not act on Thursday, was prompted by an investigation by The Frontier and our media partner, NewsOn6, into the practice. The investigation found that for several decades, some Tulsa police officers have paid superiors thousands of dollars to retire early so the officer can fill their jobs before the department’s annual promotion list expires.

Tulsa Fraternal Order of Police President Patrick Stephens said the promotions policy is something that needs to be negotiated with the city, not imposed upon officers.

“It has been negotiated in the past for the FOP, and it needs to be negotiated again, especially since we are still in current contract negotiations,” Stephens said.

Stephens said the FOP will continue to negotiate with the city in good faith but did not hold out much hope that the issue would be resolved before Mayor Dewey Bartlett leaves office Dec. 5. The next bargaining session is scheduled for next month.

“We can’t negotiate with him right now,” Stephens said. “We can have a talk, it wouldn’t mean anything.”

Asked whether he believes the issue will end up having to be resolved when Mayor-Elect G.T. Bynum takes office, Stephens said: “I think we can get to a happy resolution if we had to wait for the (new) mayor, yes. I think there would be a lot more talk across the table with the new mayor.”

Neither Bartlett nor Bynum were available for comment.

In June, Bartlett issued an executive order affecting all classified employees that effectively prohibited the pay-for-promotion practice.

The executive order states that before any classified employee – which includes police officers – accepts a promotion, he must sign an affidavit saying that he has neither given nor received compensation or made any other arrangements outside city procedures to get the promotion.

Employees not covered by the executive order include sworn members of the Fire Department, employees of the City Council and the city Auditor’s Office, and at-will appointees of the Mayor’s Office, city officials said.

Police Chief Chuck Jordan could not be reached for comment Thursday. In a previous interview with The Frontier, Jordan said he was aware of the practice and once asked City Attorney’s Office whether it was legal. Jordan said he was told there was no law against officers paying superiors to retire early and that it did not violate department or city policy.

Officers must complete a written and verbal test to compete for higher ranks and their names are placed on a promotion list in the order of how they scored on those tests. Those lists then expire after one year.

Officers who have not been promoted have to take the tests again to compete for future vacancies, known as “dying on the list.”

Payments to superior officers who agree to retire early reportedly range from $20,000 to as high as $50,000, and the practice — not sanctioned or overseen by the department — is believed to have occurred at nearly every rank.

Those who have made such payments to superiors include Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado, who was a Tulsa police sergeant before being elected Sheriff.

During an interview in March, Regalado told The Frontier and NewsOn6 “there’s absolutely nothing wrong” with paying a superior to retire early.

The practice is controversial and at least two police chiefs raised questions about it.

The current city attorney was unaware of the practice until informed recently by The Frontier and his office could find no record of any legal opinion on the matter.

Former Tulsa Police Chief Ron Palmer has said previously that he is troubled by the practice of buying rank, which was “happening all the way up to the rank of major” when he was chief. Palmer was Tulsa’s chief from 1992-2002 and returned to the job in 2007 for three years.

While Tulsa police officers aren’t state employees, Oklahoma Ethics Commission rules appear to prohibit such payments. Additionally, the city of Tulsa’s ethics rules say city officials cannot solicit gifts “or other favors” in return for performing their official duties and that they must disclose benefits received “as a result of an item before the individual … as a city official.”

Though there are state and federal laws that may apply to the practice of buying rank, it would be up to state or federal authorities to undertake such a review.

When news of the practice became public, Bartlett said he would consider investigating to determine to what extent it has occurred, but no investigation has taken place.

In some cases, only a few points or fractions of a point separate the top candidates for promotion and a new test could change the outcome. While it’s impossible to say how widespread the practice is, records show three sergeants retired one or two days before the promotion list expired between 2012 and 2014. Four officers were promoted the next day.

Records show Regalado was promoted to sergeant on March 31, 2013, one day before the list of officers and corporals eligible for promotion to that rank was set to expire. The only sergeant to retire that year was Mark Sherwood, a 24-year veteran who retired the day before Regalado’s promotion, records show.

Regalado and Sherwood served together for a time on the Tulsa Police Department’s SWAT unit.

Palmer said after hearing about officers buying ranks during his first term as chief, he asked the city’s human resources department to review the matter. He was told nothing prevented officers from paying superiors to retire.

“It sounds like you’re buying your rank and literally you are. …. I never thought it was right but there was no state law that was prohibitive of it,” Palmer said.

Regalado: ‘Kind of a private deal’

When asked about the practice in March by The Frontier, Regalado agreed he had paid a superior officer to retire.

“There was an individual who was less than a month from retiring,” he said.

Regalado said the amounts paid in such cases are based on what the superior officer is losing financially by retiring early. Asked how much he paid, and whether that sergeant was Sherwood, Regalado said: “That’s kind of a private deal.”

Because Regalado was able to skip from officer to sergeant with the promotion, he received an annual pay increase of more than $18,000, according to TPD’s salary scale.

Regalado was ranked third on the list of officers who tested for the rank of sergeant in 2012. Because the first two people on the list were promoted before him, Regalado was at the top of the remaining list in March 2013, with the list was set to expire on April 1.

He noted that the practice of paying a superior officer to retire early does not change the fact that the top-ranked officer on the list at the time is still promoted.

“It’s been a practice that has been around for years. It’s an open practice. … There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. I was No. 1 on the list,” Regalado said.

Democratic candidate for Sheriff Rex Berry told the Frontier earlier this year that he did not pay for his promotion from officer to corporal in 1981. He said when he joined the department in 1973, he learned that the practice of “paying the guy in front of you to retire” existed in the 1960s.

“I don’t know anybody who paid for a rank. … Personally, I really don’t like it because the old crowd get to control who gets promoted. It’s ripe for corruption.”

‘I’ll give you the slot’

Had the test for sergeant been given again, there’s no guarantee that Regalado or any other officer would score the same. The verbal test is conducted by a panel of outside law enforcement officers. The panel members and questions change, as do the questions on the written test.

Sources inside the department who agreed to discuss the practice — which some call buying stripes — said it is fairly widespread and well known, though some believe it is wrong and question whether it’s legal. They also question whether recipients are reporting the payments to the IRS.

Few people in the department have spoken on the record about the practice.

Major Tracie Lewis said previously that she is aware that some officers have paid superiors to retire early, adding that she has not done so. She said she understands the reason why an officer at or near the top of the list would not want to go through the arduous testing process again.

“I might consider doing it if I knew it was legal but I wouldn’t pay thousands of dollars,” Lewis said.

She said while it’s usually no secret who is being paid to retire early, “what’s usually kept secret is the amount.”

Lewis said she believes the practice of buying rank has made the Police Department “top heavy.”

“We are supervisor top heavy because per the contract you have to fill vacant spots,” she said. “Now you’re filling them sooner.”

Officer Jeff Cash, a 35-year TPD veteran, said previously that the department’s testing process has changed through the years and improved the pool of applicants for higher ranks. Having a list that expires and annual tests “elevates the quality of the candidate because he’s got to stay in test shape,” Cash said.