Cops, and Robbers
From the Aug. 30, 2010, issue of NR.


Daniel Foster

In July, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 103 in Bay City, Mich., used funds from its dues-paying members to erect a pair of billboards — one on Saginaw and Columbus, another on Euclid near Fisher — designed to instill fear in the 35,000 Michiganders the union’s officers were sworn to protect.

The billboards warned that unlike Bay City’s finest, city hall couldn’t prevent residents from being “Beaten,” “Shot,” “Stabbed,” or “Robbed,” and confronted passers-by with an image of a masked man pointing an automatic pistol at them.

City commissioners, facing a $1.66 million budget deficit, had asked the city’s eight public-sector unions — which include two separate Teamsters locals — to shed 10.8 percent in labor costs to avoid job losses. Only the firemen met the July 1 deadline for the cuts, having struck a tentative deal at the eleventh hour. The other seven were hit with layoffs — including the police, who saw five officers pulled from their force of 57, and who were given until the end of August to ratify new contracts if they didn’t want the reduction in force to become permanent.

It’s a story that is playing itself out in cities, counties, and states across the country. Hoboken, N.J., is planning to lay off 18 cops, eliminate top-brass positions, and civilianize a number of non-patrol police functions. Akron, Ohio, is eliminating holiday overtime pay for emergency-service workers and reassigning a number of police to school districts, where costs can be “shared.” East St. Louis, Ill., one of America’s most dangerous cities, is trying to stave off police and fire reductions in force with accounting tricks such as salary deferrals. In perhaps the most dramatic example, the gang-ridden city of Oakland, Calif., laid off 80 police officers — a full 10 percent of its force — in an effort to balance the city budget.

Everywhere, cash-strapped councils and legislatures in the second year of post-crisis America are struggling to bring outlays in line with a shrunken and stagnant revenue base after decades of metastasizing growth in public-sector labor costs. And they are being forced to take a hard look at their salary and pension obligations to police and firefighters — obligations that are both prime drivers of structural deficits and as close a thing as there is in local governance to a sacred cow.

And the fuzz aren’t taking it lying down. In Akron, Fraternal Order of Police local president Paul Hlynsky has engaged in a public war of words with mayor Don Plusquellic, accusing him of lying and negotiating in bad faith. In a move to rival that of the Bay City police union, Oakland police chief Anthony Batts responded to the layoffs by ticking off a list of 44 situations to which his reduced force would no longer be able to respond — and it wasn’t just cats up trees and noise-ordinance violations. The list included felonies like burglary and grand theft, extortion and fraud.