BRIDGEPORT — For the city's parks police force, it's a case of severely arrested development.

Despite their shrinking ranks, parks officers recently helped capture a fugitive armed with an assault rifle, located an Army deserter and assisted at the scene of recent fatal shootings at Seaside Park and Went Field.

The officers, also called special officers, carry guns and can arrest people. Their duties can be hazardous at times, but they say they don't get paid enough compared to regular cops.

The pay disparity, one of several complaints the parks officers have with the city, has driven three of the city's five officers to seek other employment.

Parks officers are paid a starting base salary of $13.52 an hour, $4.60 less than their Police Department counterparts.

"It's not fair," said a parks police source who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "They're asking us to do hazardous duty work and [we're] not receiving compensation for it."

Two parks officers have gotten conditional acceptances for jobs with the Plainfield Police Department and are undergoing background checks and other tests, said Robert Hoffman, deputy police chief in that town. A third parks officer has taken a part-time job with another company and wants to quit the force. The potential loss of three officers comes 10 months after a fourth officer took a job with the Plainfield department.

Another officer is on leave, said Caryn Kaufman, spokeswoman for Mayor John M. Fabrizi.

That means if the two officers are hired by Plainfield, only one active officer would remain to patrol several major parks and several dozen small ones.

Fabrizi said the pay disparity is an issue under review by the city's Labor Relations Department and the officers' union.

"This is something that needs to be addressed, but it needs to be researched first," he added.

Parks police fall under the direction of the Parks Department, headed by Phil Handy, a civilian. The parks — or special — officers share a union, the National Association of Government Employees, Local RI-200, with Board of Education police officers and other city workers.

Eugene O'Neill, formerly chairman of the Board of Police Commissioners and a school security consultant, was recently appointed to the new position of supervisor of park security to oversee the five.

Michael Feeney, the city's chief administrative officer, declined to elaborate on the pay issue, citing pending contract negotiations. But, he said, if the staffing falls to a critical level regular police officers could step in until new parks officers could be found.

An official at NAGE's office on Main Street referred comment to the union's national office in Quincy, Mass., where a spokesman was unavailable.

Under the expired NAGE contract, it would have taken three years for a new parks police officer to reach the base salary of new regular officer in Bridgeport Police Union Local 1159, according to figures recently provided by Kaufman.

Local 1159, which represents city officers, is currently in negotiations with the city over a new pact for its members.

Pay for a starting parks or school resource officer would rise from $13.52 an hour, or $28,121 annually, to $16.84, or $35,027 annually, in three years.

Also, the officers get an extra $1 an hour, or $2,080 annually, for earning required state certification, Kaufman said.

In comparison, a first-step regular police officer would be paid a base hourly pay of $18.12, or $37,694 annually. It would take 10 years for an officer to reach the fourth step, which pays $23.98 an hour, or $49,891 annually.

Meanwhile, a starting officer in Plainfield is paid about $41,500, according to Hoffman. Plainfield's department has 18 officers to cover the community of about 17,000 residents.

Meanwhile, Bridgeport officers in the Local 1159 contend they are underpaid compared to police in other Connecticut cities.

The pay disparity between the city's special and regular officers has come up before.

Parks Police Officer Michael Bouchard filed a grievance in January 2004 accusing the city of paying substandard wages to parks and school officers.

Aaron Leo, who covers regional issues, can be reached at 330-6222.