Salt Lake police officers are retiring early in droves.

Many are leaving because of rumors that their early retirement incentives may soon be lost in city budget cuts.Some are just weary of low morale, which, one officer said, results from reduced manpower, no pay increases and rumors of program cuts in the department.

Whatever the reason for this year's increase in retirements, the results are clear: The Police Department could be facing a serious manpower shortage and is losing hundreds of years of field and investigative experience.

So far this year, seven officers - ranging in rank from patrolman to major - have retired, and 18 more have submitted letters indicating they will retire soon, according to city personnel office figures.

Of those officers, each of whom has 20 to 30 years experience, more than half can be considered retiring "early," or before they had originally planned.

By comparison, 14 officers retired in 1986. Last year, there were only 10 retirements.

"Why should we stick around?" said Elden Tanner, president of the Salt Lake Police Association. "Indications from the mayor's office are such that we're not going to get a pay raise in at least three years. So why not pull the plug and go?"

The retirements will put the police force around 290, its lowest level in recent memory. Three years ago, there were 330 sworn officers, and some complained that was too few.

Tanner said the low number of street cops is taking the fun out of the job because officers are swamped in handling routine calls, have little time for follow-up investigations and are continually backlogged.

"It used to be that after responding to a family fight, where your adrenaline gets pumping, that you'd have a half hour to patrol around and calm down.

"One of our officers the other day told me that he is averaging just three minutes between calls."

For most officers, going without coffee and lunch breaks is becoming a regular part of the job.

Detectives are frustrated, too. If there are no obvious leads or suspects, the case is simply closed, Tanner said.

"They're just getting fed up with the extra workload. If you can't do a decent job, what good are you really doing to the public?"

One patrol sergeant, who is retiring in June after 23 years of service, said he's weary of budget problems. "Hearing constantly about the budget is getting old. It wears on everyone," said the sergeant, who hadn't planned on retiring for a few more years.

Maj. Ed Johnson, acting chief, said the large number of retirees has injured the department but not seriously. "It's just a temporary thing," said Johnson, who believes that the number of retirements has tapered off.

The major said the department plans to hire 22 officers in September.

Johnson said retiring officers have given him numerous reasons for their decision to leave. Those reasons don't include morale or pay, he said.

"I've not had one person retiring mention the word morale," the major said. "There's not been one that's told me it's because of pay either."

Johnson said he hopes the flood of retiring officers has subsided. "And I think it has. But if we were to get another large outflux of people, we'll have to look at some (alternatives)."

If the numbers get too low, he said, some detectives may be asked to work the streets for a while.