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by Peter Moskos

December 12, 2009

Pay police more?

Stilgar, in a comment, raises some excellent questions:
Claims about the quality of pay are irrelevant without context. Rather than shout past each other, it might be worthwhile to ask:

1. Based on the backgrounds of the cops you have worked with, would you say that many of them were well-paid in policing compared to what they could have made in other jobs?

2. If you believe that police should be well-paid, it makes sense that a lot of people will be paid less than cops. Who? Mental hospital orderlies don't get shot at, but they do get spat on and attacked as much as many cops, and they have to spend time looking up junkies' asses. Most of them also don't have sweet pension plans. That, of course, is just one of many possible examples.

3. Peter, in your book you try to demythologize police work: pointing out that most cops don't get shot at, that the job is usually boring, and that the majority of people of average intelligence, temperament and physical ability can do the job competently. Given that you don't seem to think policing requires specialized skills or extensive previous education, why should cops be paid more? (I know you haven't made that point in this conversation, but it's your blog, I figure I should make a question just for you- though others are certainly welcome to answer).

4. Okay, another in response to something Peter has said. You've written that you believe cops should be paid better in order to attract better candidates. But given the budget situation in most American cities, the fact that most people here will argue that most current cops do their jobs just fine, and the law of diminishing returns, isn't this throwing money down a hole?
I have thoughts but really need to grade papers. In the meantime, I'm curious what others have to say. What do you think?


Marc S said...

I have to say I agree with the poster in many cases. Some police agencies are indeed grossly underpaid and I wouldn't do the job for what they earn. On the other hand, find me another job where you can make the kind of money and benefits many agencies pay with a highschool diploma or associates degree. It's near impossible to find an entry level job that compensates that well with a BA anymore.

I have a BA in CJ and it wasn't the pay that turned me off of becoming a cop--hell, I still work EMS--it was the atmosphere the agencies promoted and the general negative attitude towards progessive policing I found when I started to look seriously at the job. My education turned me off of becoming a cop moreso than anything else. The best thing I can say about the CJ program at the university I attended was they did such a good job informing us about the problems with the criminal justice system, when finished I was completely disenchanted with the idea of working in it.

Anonymous said...

Point by point answers:

1. By this standard police are obviously and incredibly well paid. That is why when regular citizens are giving bad policemen a hard time, they make "Wal*Mart greeter" cracks.

2. Pay based on risk should not concern itself with the ontological classification of the source of the risk. In other words risk pay should not distinguish between policewomen dead from running behind moving cars and lumberjacks dead from falling out of trees or cabbies dead from armed robberies gone bad. Dead is dead. Seriously injured is seriously injured. Period. Also, risk of death and injury should be no more well compensated in the public sector (eg police work) than in the private sector (eg agricultural worker).

3. They shouldn't. They should be paid less and have their unions busted -- just like what has happened with jobs in the private sector.

4. Yes.

PCM said...

I do think police should be paid more. Either you get policing on the cheap or you pay a proper professional salary and expect a proper profession.

And while most police departments don't require any college, many of the bigger departments (like New York) do. The police officers in my classes are by and large excellent students (at both the undergrad and graduate levels).

Does college make you a better cop? I don't know. There are many great police out there (most of the ones I worked with) with nothing but a high-school diploma.

Directly, I don't think college makes you a better cop. But I do think education makes you a better person. And I think better better people make better cops.

But if we're going to demand college degrees, then we need to pay accordingly.

1. But in answer to your first point, Stilgar, yes some (but not all) were well-paid in policing compared to what they could have made in other jobs. That's why many because police officers. But policing is a different job that deserves more pay.

2. Paying police more doesn't always mean paying other people less. (It could mean high taxes on the very rich, for instance, which I'm all for.)

Pay isn't and shouldn't be inversely proportional to how pleasant a job is. If it were, the rich would be poor and the poor would be rich.

Pay should 1) be enough to live on, no matter what the job, 2) somewhat proportional to supply and demand (so cops should make more than firefighters), and 3) reflect the uniqueness of the job, both in terms of skills, what happens when you do it well, and what happens when you fail.

Police should be paid more in part because police are given power and authority by the state to arrest and use force against citizens. That is a big responsibility.

Police should be paid more in part because danger is part of the job. Other jobs are also dangerous, but there’s a difference when danger is a recognized part of the job. In other work, if you do everything right you don't get hurt. In policing you can do everything right and still get killed. It's part of the job. We are asking people to be brave and willing put their lives on the line every day they go to work. Is it too much to ask to be paid accordingly?

3. I do try to demythologize police work in my book. But I don't wish to imply for a second that policing does not require specialized skills or anyone can do. The problem is that the skills required for being good police are not properly emphasized, taught, or rewarded within the police department.

4. As a city-living taxpayer, part of me wants all municipal employees to work for as little as possible. Perhaps during bad economic times, we can get away with paying workers (and police) less. But that doesn't make it right. The money is out there. It’s a question of how we want to raise it and how we want to spend it.

Certainly it's possible that there's a law of diminishing returns for paying police more. I'm not going to argue that somebody making $200,000 needs a pay raise. But at the bottom of the pay scale, it's still tough.

We're not that far removed from NYPD recruits so poorly paid that one was busting for welfare fraud to support her kids and another shot himself cleaning his gun in the dark because he couldn't pay the light bill.

At some level, as I've written, you do get what you pay for. If we could cut off the bottom 10% of bad policing, that would be worth spending more on the other 90%. Though most cops do their job just fine, it's the bad cops that screw everything up for both the police and public.

If an orderly messes up, it probably won't start a riot.

But indeed, throwing money at people doesn't (always) make them better. I'd be for something like this: pay cops more but actually raise hiring standards or use the academy as a weed-out process.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the thoughtful replies. Based on the responses to my second question, I was unsuccessful in getting across what I was asking. I wasn't trying to make a point about different degrees of risk or economic necessity. I simply thought that this kind of context would be a good way to understand exactly how people here value their jobs and, by extension, how they see the world.

By the way, blogger isn't letting me post anonymously. Don't know if you turned off anonymous comments or if there's some kind of error.

PCM said...

I disabled anonymous posting and it will probably stay that way.

So now you need a google or openID (whatever that is) account to post comments. You can set up an account and have it be untraceable (click on "Ben" above to see what I mean).

Sorry for the inconvenience.

Anonymous posters too often bring down the level of discussion, take things off subject, and use repetition as a substitute for discourse. It's just not worth it to me.

I'd prefer fewer but better (ie: less ranting) comments. We'll see how it works.

And you can always reach me by email if you really want to say something anonymously. I can still do that.

Sgt T said...

What counts as high pay is very relative. Fifty grand a year might be a lot in Detroit or St. Louis, but won't get you a starter s***-box in New York or LA. A reasonable standard is whether you can afford to live in the jurisdiction you work in or it's surrounding area. I've seen many stories over the past few years about departments in the Bay Area that are struggling mightily because they can't get people because of the high cost of living.

People are always going to paid more or less than police for more or less dangerous work. It's a slippery slope to use that as your comparative lens. A nurse's assistant will spend their day cleaning up human waste for not too much above minimum wage, whereas a mid-level accountant will usually make more than a patrol officer in a given metro area. This is more a function of the value society assigns to a given task than how much it is actually needed. What's of more use to their fellow man: A paramedic making $40K a year or a major league pitcher making $1 million a year? Our argument here is with economics, not police pay scales.

It may not require specialized skills or education, but the requirements are getting more stringent. A lot of departments are now requiring at least some college. (In my experience this isn't necessarily producing a better class of candidate, but it lets departments feel good about themselves.) Liability consciousness is driving a zero-defect mentality in hiring/screening. Any pre-hire transgression is viewed for it's potential for future litigation. One of the reasons you pay well is because the job requires you to list all of your sins publicly (all aspects of your hiring background check are subject to open records requests except medical exams), submit to a polygraph, a psychological exam, and usually a pretty thorough medical exam. Even if you don't have any sins/embarrassments this is not a fun process. Also, came across some FBI stats a few years ago that said the life expectancy of a police officer is 58 years, depression at 10 times the national average, 5 times the rate of alcoholism, 3 to 6 times the suicide rate (3 to 1 ratio of suicides to line of duty deaths), a divorce rate above 65%, and a chronic or acute PTSD rate north of 40%.

A final idea. One of the reasons you want to pay officers more is experience. The first few years on the job are all about first training, then learning. It takes a few years to learn to do the job well, and in this context it means responding properly to whatever is placed in front of you. Those officers that learn to apply the appropriate amount of force, compassion, or reason (depending on the circumstances) should be compensated accordingly. You can't make these officers through training & selection; you have to grow them. It's a transportable skill set that officers will gladly take elsewhere if you treat them like shit. As to anonymous' reference to union busting I'll have to strongly disagree. Without a union government agencies will do things that would make the private sector blush. I worked in a non-union state. Officers in my department that were injured in the line of duty had to use their sick & vacation time while they were out. Once that ran out they had to go on disability, which paid about $900 a month. One coworker had to declare bankruptcy after being injured in a on-duty crash. Another had his credit damaged by collections seeking compensation for his ambulance ride after an on-duty crash. Officers need someone standing between them and their employer, as employers simply can't be counted on to do the right thing.

PCM said...

Part of the problem with disparity in police pay is that the jurisdictions that, money aside, are better to work in also pay better.

Of course money matters.

If more pay didn't correlate with better quality employees, why do rich areas always pay police more?

Sure there are good police officers who work for very little just as there are good teachers who teach for very little. But there are also more bad police and bad teachers where the money is bad.

Officers in Nassau and Suffolk Counties (Long Island) and parts of New Jersey make very good money (say twice my salary). I don't disparage them for it. Good for them. But I think they make enough.

It's the low end that is worrisome. The starting salary today for most police departments tends to be between $30,000 and $40,000. Of course it depends on where you live, but it's still not very much.

In NYC the starting salary is about $42,000. In the movie Serpico, Serpico moves to Greenwich Village (Minetta Street).

Oh, I miss the days I never knew when cops could live in the Village! Today the average one bedroom apartment in the Village (no doorman) is $2,770. In Harlem the equivalent is $1,600.

Of course the outer boroughs are cheaper, but it's not easy to raise a family and be middle-class after you spend half your gross income on rent.

Tim said...

I feel sometimes like I'm making the same argument in different forums but with the same point.

As a nation we need to gather to identify what the truly essential occupations are -- the ones that define and protect the very constitution (lower-case c) of our country/society/culture. I've traditionally argued that the essential occupations are law enforcement and education; a democratic republic can only thrive with an educated electorate and can only feel secure with the government's visible representatives (law enforcement) being held to the highest ideals.

Given that these are the most important jobs in our country, we must take the steps necessary to attract our finest citizens to these occupations. Given that economic and psychological research show us that altruism doesn't really exist, there is only one incentive that will work to bring our best and brightest to teaching and policing: competitive salaries.

They are, of course, investments.

Trying to set what "fair pay" is for these occupations is again the purview of the economists, but studies that, say, ask high school seniors how much each job would need to pay in order to entice them to direct their education toward that occupation... that would be a start.

Anyway, cops don't need to go to college. They just need a functional high school education, which once provided people the background they needed to succeed in life, and now provides nothing but a daily social gathering. (This, of course, can be mitigated by improving the quality of educators, and so forth.)

I'm tempted to include the military in the category of essential occupations, but that has its own comparative disadvantages.

Yael said...

I don't think cops should be paid a dime more than we are. Many of us join the job for what might be considered the wrong reasons (let's face it -- how many of us really want to "help" people like we say in our interviews), and for minimal work we're rewarded with fantastic job security and primo benefits. Sure, we take a lotta crap, but we pretty much knew what we were getting into when we signed up for this job. We're not victims. We don't get to label ourselves a beleaguered and misunderstood group, or an underpaid one, for that matter.

My husband works in the private sector, and while his salary doubles mine, his workload probably quadruples mine. To the 40th power. I personally enjoy having the option to kick back, open a book, take my calls (and my 10-7's), and know that my job is just as secure as the guy busting his ass out there, if not more so. (hey, the harder you work, the more opportunities there are for you to fuck up, get complaints against you, etc.) I'll admit it. I like having the option to be lazy at times. You don't get that in the private sector.

I think we get paid fairly, which is not to say I wouldn't happily accept more money. I just don't think I, personally, deserve it.

Richard P. said...

Dr. Moskos,

I agree with your ideas about community police work and beat cops on foot. I am also someone who thinks that suburbanization has damaged this country greatly. Might it be that the vast physical distances of modern cities actually make "civilization" impossible because proper policing is not affordable for most cities? (Dense inner-cities might have been policiable but since suburbs strain resources most cities are unable to give proper attention to crime problems.)

In this sense it is not about the quality of cops but the quantity. The ones we are getting are good enough, but there are not enough of them.

Another thesis I have is that state or federal laws are ill-suited for urban environments; cities should be able to make certain actions felonies/crimes. Since they cannot, cities have to enforce or can only enforce laws that state/federal legislatures deem correct. This is at root an institutionalist argument about rural legislative bias. Of the evidence needed to prove this thesis, I have none.

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