Are you looking for a job with low pay? Does the idea of working miserable hours appeal to you? How about working weekends and holidays? Is the daily risk to life and limb on your checklist of must-haves for your next job? If so, the New York Police Department has a job for you.
Last month Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly announced an expansion plan that will put 1,200 more officers on the streets of New York. The plan calls for the hiring of 800 cops and an additional 400 civilian employees who would take over desk jobs currently held by police officers. The proposed expansion comes after a five-year decline in the number of officers on the NYPD, from 40,700 in 2001 to about 37,000 today. Bloomberg and Kelly hope the added officers will keep the city’s crime on the downward trend seen over the past several years. The overall crime rate for the city is down about two percent this year and 24 percent from five years ago. There were 540 murders committed in New York in 2005, a disturbing number, certainly, but take a moment to consider that this is less than half the number seen in 1995 and about one quarter of the figure seen in the early 90s during the dystopian days of the Dinkins administration.
These are impressive accomplishments, to be sure, but there are signs that New York’s crime may be on the rise. Thirty-four of the city’s 76 police precincts have seen an increase in crime since the beginning of this year, with one precinct in Queens up almost 20 percent. Perhaps it has finally occurred to Bloomberg and Kelly that they can’t expect crime to continue dropping while thousands of cops leave the job and go unreplaced.
There’s just one flaw in their planned expansion: there aren’t enough people who want the job. The New York Daily News reported that the number of applicants for the NYPD’s February 2006 test was down 31 percent from the year before, making it difficult for the department even to keep pace with normal attrition, let alone expand the ranks. The Daily News story also caught Bloomberg fudging with the numbers when it came to police compensation. The mayor’s press release dangled a nice, fat carrot in front of prospective police recruits: “The 800 new recruits, over the course of their Police Academy training (6 months) and their first six months on the force, will receive an average total cash compensation of $35,000, plus an additional $1,000 uniform allowance. By their sixth year on the force, the average total cash compensation will rise to $72,000, plus an additional $1,000 uniform allowance.”
Not so fast, Mr. Mayor. “The actual salary after one year of employment is $28,900,” says the Daily News. “To reach the higher number, the administration added in holiday pay, overtime, shift differential and uniform allowance.” Only officers who work between 4 P.M. and 8 A.M. receive the shift differential, and overtime is not always available in some precincts. Indeed, according to according to Policepay.net, the NYPD ranks 44th on its index of the country’s 200 largest police departments. When adjusted for cost of living it drops to 157th place. The departments in Yonkers, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo all rank far higher when cost of living is factored in.
“I’m told by our personnel bureau that it will be a challenge [to hire the 800 officers],” Commissioner Kelly told the Daily News. “They believe that they can hire these classes of 2,000 both in July and next January. I can tell you one thing: We’re not lowering our standards in any way, shape or form to reach those numbers.”
And if that’s true, more power to him. But other police departments are finding that lowering their standards is exactly what’s required to fill their vacancies. The Washington Post reported Monday that police departments across the country are having trouble attracting applicants. According to the Post, more than 80 percent of the nation’s 17,000 law enforcement agencies are finding it difficult to keep their police officer positions filled. My own Los Angeles Police Department, for example, has more than 700 vacancies, and even at full strength it has about half as many officers per capita as New York City.
“I was just at a conference of police chiefs,” LAPD Chief William Bratton told the Post. “It was all everybody was talking about.”
The Post cited economic factors, changing demographics, and societal changes as reasons that police jobs are going begging. “The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have siphoned off public-service-minded people to the military.” the story says. “Hundreds of law enforcement officers have handed in their badges to take higher-paying positions in the booming homeland security industry.”
And maybe all of that is true, but neither the Post story nor any other commentary I’ve seen on the subject has explored a big reason why cops are walking away from their jobs and potential applicants are looking elsewhere: politics.
Most people who enter police work do so, at least in part, out of an obligation to serve their communities. I, for example, might have taken my college degree and gone into some line of work that would have provided greater financial rewards, but I grew up here in Los Angeles and dreamed of joining the LAPD as early as grade school. Many of my colleagues grew up with the same dream. But my colleagues and I know, just as cops in New York and elsewhere know, that if we go out on the streets tomorrow and get into a scrape that brings down media attention on our heads, the city we serve will turn its back on us before we can drive back to the police station. This is particularly true if the incident carries even a hint of racial overtones.
Witness the ordeal endured here in Los Angeles by John Hatfield, the LAPD officer fired after being shown on television hitting a fleeing car thief with a flashlight. Though the car thief was injured only slightly, the LAPD treated Hatfield like a leper for over a year before finally firing him. And now Officer Steve Garcia, who shot and killed a 13-year-old who tried to run him down with a stolen car, faces the prospect of being fired despite being cleared in the shooting by the district attorney, an internal LAPD inquiry, and Chief Bratton himself. And yet they wonder why the LAPD can’t fill its vacancies.
There are similarly dispiriting stories all across the country. No one comes into police work for the money. All we ask for is a decent living and to be treated fairly when things get dicey. Sadly, cops and potential cops are discovering this is too much to ask. Can higher crime be far behind?
–Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.