Magazine | September 20, 2010, Issue


Are Cops Overpaid?

The quality of National Review is of the highest order, but Daniel Foster’s “Cops, and Robbers” (August 30) left something to be desired. Mr. Foster begins with the sad tale of Bay City, Mich., and its $1.66 million deficit. I find that the deficit is part of a $160 million budget. Mr. Foster would like us to believe that the only way to close this gap is through cutting people or pay. If a 10.8 percent cut to labor costs would fix the $2 million problem, where is the other $140 million going?

Mr. Foster later notes that public safety is the largest part of any city’s budget.  However, during the last 15 years, many cities saw dramatic increases in revenues. This led to huge expenditures on pet projects. As anecdotal evidence, I present the city I live in, which built a $40 million ballpark made to resemble some big-league parks. They also now want to close budget shortfalls by cutting personnel. We must stop the spending instead.

As to the pay of public-safety employees, I detect some anger. (Is there an unjust ticket in his past?) Foster cites the pay of officers in Oakland, which is not representative of the pay most police officers across the nation receive.

It takes a certain set of qualities to make a good police officer, and the pool of persons capable of becoming good officers is somewhat small. Also, there is a risk element involved for which officers should be compensated. Poorly paid and low-quality officers have been tried many times across the nation, with disastrous outcomes.

Lastly, as a 15-year police officer who has dedicated his working life to serving his community, I find the phrase “hide behind the badge” disgusting.

Mike McCartney

Gilbert, Ariz.

Daniel Foster replies: Like most reporters who cut their teeth in local newspapers, I spent my fair share of time covering the “cop shop” — poring over arrest reports with desk sergeants, drinking bad coffee on late-night ride-alongs, the whole deal — and I still count as friends the fine patrolmen, investigators, and supervisors I interacted with on a daily basis. Which is why it pains me to see a response to my article like the one written by Mr. McCartney.

While Bay City’s total budget is $160 million, most of its outlays in a given year are non-discretionary: utilities payments, debt service, and contractual labor costs. In FY 2009–10, the operating budget — the revenue Bay City uses to sustain the daily activities of government — was listed in official documents as $22.9 million. By contrast, “personnel costs” and “fringe benefits” accounted for more than $40 million in expenditures. That year, public-employee salaries and benefits constituted some 72 percent of general-fund outlays.

Mr. McCartney also chides me for citing the salaries of Oakland police officers, which he says are unrepresentative. Nowhere do I suggest they are the norm (nor are they the most egregious: see page 28 of this issue). But then, my argument is not that police make too much money, full stop. It is that communities facing budget crises should look for excessive public-safety compensation. Citing an anecdote in service of that argument is as legitimate as Mr. McCartney’s citing an anecdote from Gilbert, Ariz., in service of his argument.

Most cops are decent, honorable men and women who provide an essential service. The same could be said for most educators, and yet I suspect Mr. McCartney would not be nearly so defensive if I suggested there was waste and inefficiency in the compensation of unionized teachers. Nor should we forget that we are conservatives, even when the topic is public-safety compensation.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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