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The Sergeant Mickey Hutchens Act

 

 

By David Rose, Division Secretary and Winston-Salem Triad President

 

Shortening law enforcement retirement years of service requirements has been proposed by different legislators in different sessions. Officers serve 30 years to receive full retirement benefits from a system they pay into. Earlier this year, Reps. Jeff Zenger, Erin Paré, Donny Lambeth and Jon Hardister filed HB 417 (Sgt. Mickey Hutchens Act) at the request of the PBA.

 

This legislation is grounded in studies that show the life expectancy of law enforcement and corrections officers is less than the general population. Other states throughout the country require fewer years of service but support for these bills in our state have died, in part, because of the lack of budget support by the General Assembly.

 

There is a provision in the retirement system that allows a law enforcement officer who is a military veteran to purchase years of service based on their first enlistment. This allows the officer to retire earlier depending on how much service time is purchased. Using this as a template, the PBA began to work on setting a standard of achievement that would require the officer to meet certain requirements before they were allowed to purchase service time.

 

The advanced certificate administered by the North Carolina Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission and the North Carolina Sheriffs Education and Training Standards Commission became that standard. The advanced certificate is awarded to law enforcement, and corrections and probation officers, who have completed a number of years of service, training hours and college education requirements. It is the highest honor that an officer in North Carolina can receive. 

 

The advanced certificate is a catalyst for creating a better trained and educated officer. Under the provisions of HB 417, an officer who is vested in the retirement system with five years of service and achieves their advanced certificate would be able to purchase up to four years of service time using funds from their 401(k).  This would allow officers to retire with 26 years of service instead of 30 years.

 

The legislation would also serve as a recruitment and retention tool for agencies in the future. Agencies across North Carolina are seeing an unprecedented drop in candidates and vacancies are at an all-time high.  Opponents say that the Hutchens Act will result in a significant loss of veteran officers that will suddenly be eligible to retire. The PBA realizes some eligible officers will take advantage of this benefit, but believes the costs associated with purchasing service time late in a career will make it cost-prohibitive for most. The real concern for agencies in the future will be retaining the experienced officers who are not close to retirement. These officers have expressed to the PBA that they would remain in the profession if this Act became a law.  The retention of these veteran officers will far outweigh any losses sustained by the departure of the few that will immediately retire upon eligibility.

 

HB 417 was named in honor of Sgt. Mickey Hutchens. On Oct. 7, 2009, Hutchens was shot outside a restaurant after he responded to a call reporting a disturbance. The restaurant's manager reported that her ex-husband, who had outstanding warrants for his arrest, was at the restaurant and would not leave. The suspect fled from officers and then opened fire at close range when confronted. The suspect shot Hutchens in the head and shot Officer Daniel Clark in the head and the chest before being fatally wounded himself.

 

Both officers were transported to Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. Clark survived his injuries and was released from the hospital. Days later, despite all efforts by medical staff, Hutchens died from his injuries.

 

Hutchens had been a 27-year veteran of the Winston-Salem Police Department and a valued PBA member. He is survived by his wife, Beth, and two daughters, Jill and Leah. The family now has three grandchildren that Hutchens never got to meet.

 

Sgt. Mickey Hutchens’ Grandchildren

 

In April 2021, House Pensions and Retirement Committee heard the bill in a hearing attended by several PBA leaders and staff. Zenger introduced the bill to the committee members. He explained that the bill would allow officers to participate more aggressively in their retirement and would encourage them to get more training and further emphasized the toll that a long career takes on an officer and how HB 417 will give them the option to retire earlier.

 

Rep. Jeff Zenger Speaking to the Committee

 

He also emphasized that the actuarial study completed on the bill, showed no material impact to the retirement system. In his closing comments, Zenger said, “I think (417) is a great opportunity to really help our police officers.”

 

Leo John with the League of Municipalities spoke on the additional costs of the separation allowance to local governments if the bill passed. According to John, officers retiring earlier would mean that the separation allowance would be paid earlier, thus putting a burden on the municipalities. He said the actuarial that would cost each of his members $190,000 in 2027/2028 for a total of $2.9 million and suggested that legislature work to reduce this cost. Realistically, however, the separation allowance is already paid for through legislation that was passed in the mid-1980s.

 

Division President Randy Byrd spoke about the incredible incentive for younger officers to get their advanced certificate through education, training and experience, “This is the highest honor you can get as a law enforcement officer.” 

 

Division President Randy Byrd with Rep. Zenger, Rep. Hardister,
and Rep. Paré after Committee Hearing

 

Byrd then spoke about the difficulty of attracting future officers to the profession.  He said, “This (HB 417) provides them an incentive for them to get in the business, get higher education and be able to look down the road and know they have an option where they can get out earlier.”  He closed with a plea on behalf of Hutchens and how his loss of life might have been prevented.  Byrd asked committee members, “Why is that relevant to this bill today?”  He explained that Hutchens was just shy of his 28th year in law enforcement, had his advanced certificate and would have been eligible to retire under this new legislation. “He could have chosen possibly to not be in that situation,” he concluded. Primary sponsors Hardister and Paré also spoke on the bill.

 

Rep. Jon Hardister Speaking to the Committee

 

“I would just implore the members of the committee to think about the cost, physical and emotional, on these law enforcement officers,” said Hardister. “It is a very difficult job. It is a very arduous job. I think that if you look around the state there is a bit of an issue with recruitment and retention. I think this would help with that and this would be a great benefit for the men and women who work to protect our safety.” Paré added, “There has been outpouring of support among my constituents and statewide among officers and I would appreciate your support of this bill.”

 

Rep. Erin Paré Speaking to the Committee

 

After the remarks, primary sponsor Donny Lambeth made a motion for a favorable report and re-referral to the Appropriations Committee.  Once referred to the Rules and Operations Committee in the House, HB 417 passed unanimously and on May 6, HB 417 came to the House floor for a vote.  Zenger once again spoke on the bill. Afterwards, the bill passed by a 112-0 vote.  The bill has now moved to the Senate and sits in the Rules Committee awaiting a hearing.

 

The PBA would like to thank the bill sponsors for their hard work on this critical piece of legislation and all the House members that voted for the bill in both in committees and on the House floor. We are especially honored for the opportunity to keep the legacy of Hutchens’ memory and legacy alive. His work had an incredible impact on the lives of others and his sacrifice will never be forgotten.

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