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Police Pay: What's Fair?

by Julia Vitullo-Martin, Sep 01, 2002
 

The starting salary of police officers in the NYPD is $31,305 -- too low to support a family of four in most city neighborhoods. How did this happen to cops in the most famous -- and once best paid -- police department in America? And what should be done about it in the next contract?

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Police officers, who have been working without a contract since July 31, 2000, are now having their fate decided by a state board under binding arbitration. This will be the first time ever that a state panel has ruled on a city police contract. The board's preliminary recommendation, leaked in early August, was that the police should be offered the same 5 & 5 percent wage increases over two years that had previously been given to the 13-union Uniformed Forces Coalition. (Constituting about 39,000 uniformed employees, the coalition includes the unions representing firefighters, sanitation, and correction officers.)

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The raises would be retroactive over the previous two years. The board also proposed that cops work another 10 shifts a year in exchange for a 3.5 percent bonus increase. Cops with six or more years experience would get an $1,800 increase, yielding a 14.11 percent increase to veterans.

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This set of proposals enraged the rank and file sufficiently to turn out thousands (the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association said 15,000) demonstrators in Times Square on August 15. Chanting "Too much praise, Too little raise," demonstrators carried signs saying, "They say, 'Never forget,' We say, 'Already forgotten.'"

Greg Tarpinian, executive director of the Labor Research Association, a consulting group for unions, says that September 11 "deferred the PR strategies the police might have pursued to complete their contract last year." Instead, all effort turned to making the city safe once more, with the contract on the back burner. Yet, says Tarpinian, "the fundamental problem is that the only way the public employee, without the right to strike, can leverage influence is by going to the public. The cops have wakened up to this. Cops are not feeling disrespected by the public at the moment. They're feeling disrespected by the political establishment."

The media have been full of stories about low police morale and the defection of NYPD cops to the Port Authority, neighboring jurisdictions, and even private security firms. This is ominous for the city. Professor Dennis Kenny of John Jay College notes, "It's reasonable for cops to expect that if they're making an exemplary effort the city would appreciate it. That said, management people would say that salary is less a motivator than a de-motivator. Giving them a raise wouldn't necessarily motivate them, but not giving them a satisfactory salary could be a serious de-motivator."

LOW -- BUT NOT QUITE AS LOW AS IT LOOKS

The $31,305 entry level salary for police is indeed far too low. But it moves up fairly quickly initially, reaching $49,023 after five years, and then slowly -- topping out at $55,268 after 20 years.

The benefits are good, even excellent. Police have unlimited sick leave (though the average usage is only 8 days a year) and excellent health benefits. They can retire with a full pension after 20 years service. (This is standard among police departments. Like the military, from which the 20-years-and-out system derives, police departments require cadres of physically fit young men and women, whose usefulness on patrol will decline as youth fades.)

Since the year 2000, police officers leaving the force with as few as five years have been vested with partial pensions.

This year the city agreed to add a benefit to the other end of the job. Officers can now continue to accrue credit for pensions beyond 30 years service.

The benefits are fine but they don't make up for the low salary and subsequent low take-home pay ($411 per week), says the PBA, which argues that its members need a 23 percent pay raise to bring the NYPD into line with other police departments. It has been helpfully posting job openings elsewhere on its web site.

The starting salary in Seattle, for example, is listed as $46,146; Irvine, California, offers $46,463; and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, $39,686.

In negotiating with the Giuliani administration, the PBA had asked for a 39 percent salary increase over two years, to bring officers to parity with officers in neighboring Newark. Giuliani was having none of it. He had forced through a wage freeze in the 1995 contract and showed no sign of relenting from the small 2 percent and 2.5 percent increases he was offering for the next contract.

John Jay Professor Eli Silverman, author of "NYPD Battles Crime" (Northeastern University Press, 1999), says that Giuliani "wanted to hold the line as much with the police as with CUNY professors. I suppose in his mind this was across-the-board equity. But the police felt they were producing far more for the city in terms of tourism and economy, and that they weren't getting rewarded fairly."

PERHAPS REGRETTING WHAT THEY ASKED FOR

In 1998, in the midst of their battle with Giuliani, the PBA pushed through legislation in Albany securing the right to have contract disputes go before the New York State Public Employment Relations Board (PERB). The PBA liked its chances with the three-member board that has only one member selected by the city, one by the union itself, and a third by the state board. The city challenged the legislation in court, and lost before the New York State Court of Appeals, which last year upheld the law.

The city, which is facing a $5 billion deficit next year, is now overseen by a mayor who is very confident of his management abilities, and who is not easily swayed. On his weekly radio show on WABC-770AM, Mayor Bloomberg said the PBA had not wanted to negotiate with "Giuliani, and they certainly didn't want to negotiate with my administration for seven months. They insisted on going to binding arbitration. They got themselves in a situation where win, lose or draw - when you go to binding arbitration - you have to live with it." The PBA denies this, saying they have always been open to negotiation, but as Bloomberg says, "Once you go to binding arbitration, you don't have any choice - you got to accept what it is and get on with it."

Bloomberg's problem is not just that a 23 percent increase would cost the city about $445 million, it's that a substantial raise for the cops would break the sacred principle of pattern bargaining by which the city offers its labor unions roughly the same percentage in raises. If the city deviates from settled contracts to pay the cops a jump, the other unions will come back for more. The PBA demands would cost the city about $257 million above the cost of the pattern settlement. Bad enough, but were the PBA proposal to be applied to all uniformed employees, it would cost the city over $1.3 billion for this contract period alone.

After seeing its hopes for a better deal from the state dashed in early August when the New York State Public Employment Relations Board floated the 10-percent-over-two-years proposal, the PBA rallied its troops for the public demonstration in Times Square. More quietly, its lawyers pressured the board to reexamine some 75 hours of testimony -- which the board has agreed to do, postponing any final ruling.

PROBLEMS AT BOTH ENTRY AND EXIT

As serious as the financial implications of these negotiations are, the operational problems may be even worse. Will the NYPD be able to continue its successful (but personnel-heavy) crime-fighting strategies if its pay is uncompetitive? The city and the PBA have been arguing for months about whether the NYPD does indeed have a recruitment and retention crisis. The PBA says yes, the city says no.

The test-taking numbers alone confirm there's a problem. In his March 19, 2002, testimony, former NYPD First Deputy Commissioner John Timoney pointed out that the number of people taking the test to become police officers has fallen precipitously, to 12,000 in the last couple of years from 37,000 in 1995. This is potentially disastrous because traditionally only 10 percent of those taking the test go on to the academy. (In 2000, the academy was unable to fill a class for the first time that anyone could remember.)

Further the drop-out rate at the next stage -- those actually enrolled in the academy -- has doubled from the historic rate around seven percent, says Timoney, to about 14.7 percent today.

Perhaps even worse, the rate at which recruits have been cited for infractions during their time in the academy tripled since 1997, says Timoney.

And all this despite the lowering of age and education standards during the last years of the Giuliani administration. Noting that he and Police Commissioner William Bratton had raised the standards in the first place, Timoney criticized the city's November 2000 reduction of the minimum age for police applicants by a year (from 22 to 21), and the substitution of two years as school safety officers or traffic enforcement agents for two years of college. Yet even with these lowered standards, applicants have been few.

Similarly, the NYPD has been grappling with a retirement problem for several years. The year 2000 saw the beginning of a surge, which extended well into 2001, in the number of officers eligible to retire. The overtime produced by the Sept. 11 terrorist attack then accelerated retirements further, since pensions are based on the last year's salary, in many cases, inflated by 9/11.

In sum, the NYPD is having trouble recruiting the youngsters and keeping the veterans.

WHAT SHOULD BE DONE?

Economists like to say that there is no such thing as a labor shortage, that any shortage is immediately correctable by raising pay. Indeed, New York City recently brought an end to its long-standing teacher shortage by hiring some 8,000 qualified candidates for the fall. The deluge in certified applicants was due in part to the new contract agreement raising entry-level teacher salaries to $39,000 from $31,910. Even at $39,000, New York's teacher pay is below that of neighboring jurisdictions (Yonkers pays $40,000, for example) but the jump was enough to attract those who wanted to be here. Plus top pay is high at $81,000.

But the teacher settlement was helped out by the state, which kicked in supplemental money. The police settlement is not being helped by the state, and there are no more of the federal funds that long fueled Operation Condor, the overtime initiative that paid cops an extra $100 million a year to work a sixth day. The city is on its own with cop pay, unless Senator Schumer's federal aid proposal comes through, which even he admits is unlikely.

The city only has three ways to pay for a better contract: (1) state or federal aid, for which it is surely negotiating as ferociously as possible; (2) savings within the NYPD itself; and (3) productivity savings. There has been almost no talk during negotiations about savings within the NYPD, although Newsday's Leonard Levitt regularly points out the extravagant round-the-clock use of officers to protect former police commissioner Howard Safir and former Mayor Giuliani, his girlfriend, former wife, and children. That leaves productivity savings, such as the proposal for an additional 10 shifts a year.

The good of the city requires productive, dedicated police officers -- and a contract that says they're appreciated. New Yorkers should be paying attention.

Julia Vitullo-Martin, a long-time editor and writer on urban affairs, is the former director of the Citizens Jury Project at the Vera Institute of Justice. She is now writing a book entitled The Conscience of the American Jury.


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