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by Peter Moskos

March 20, 2008

Around when you need one?

The Times reports that the NYPD is to shrink to its smallest size in 15 years. That’s a little misleading because the department in never at its budgeted size. The “size” of the department would “drop” to 36,838. But the actual number of officers today is 35,800. So the department could still grow despite this “drop.” The horrible irony is that the department has been shrinking ever since 2000. You know, right before the country set on a new path of safety and security. You might think the federal government would want more New York City police to help prevent the next large-scale terrorist attack. You might think that.

This does point to a larger issue of why there are so many unfilled positions. Word on the street is that standards in the academy have already dropped substantially. The answer, for once, is shocking simple: Starting salary: $25,100. Top pay after 5 or 6 years: $59,585. That’s not a lot to live in New York. And it’s less than most other surrounding police departments pay. You get what you pay for.

The idea the more cops equals more safety is actually surprisingly new. For decades, at least until the mid 1990s, “experts” in the criminal justice field used a lot of trees to disprove any link between police numbers and crime. What matters isn’t so much how many police there are, but what those police officers do. But if police are doing the right thing—and that’s a big if—more police officers help. And since the early 1990s, police officers in New York have been doing the right thing more often than not.

Nobody knows the “right” number of police to have. Ideally we’d always have more. But when you take the zero-sum world of municipal budgets into account, I think New York City has about the right numbers today. Raising the pay of police officers is an issue of fairness and an issue of getting and retaining better officers.

It only takes one big lawsuit tomorrow—paid out of the pockets of New York City taxpayers such as myself—to negate any financial savings from cheap pay today. Saving a buck or two (or million) now will cost us more later.

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