November 6, 2002

City Power

What Our Bravest Take Home Is a Crime

By Al O'Leary Al O'Leary is the communications director for the New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Association.

My father was a cop and I can remember when, as an 11-year-old, I understood that one day he might not come home from work.

It was a beautiful summer's day in 1962 and our family was staying in a summertime community called Budd Lake, N.J. My mother's family had a little bungalow on a big piece of property with a driveway arched with trees so thick that it looked like a tunnel. It was a peaceful place.

We didn't see dad often during the summer because he worked swing shifts as a cop, so it was a big event when he did come up to "the lake," as we called it. But this one day, he was not all smiles as usual. He greeted us with a hug and a kiss and a smile that seemed forced. As it turns out, two detectives had been shot to death when they interrupted a holdup in progress in a store.

These days, I can't remember what I had for dinner last night, but I can still remember their names: Luke Fallon and John Finnegan. They walked in on a holdup of a smoke shop and were both slain. My dad was very upset and, naturally, so was mom. We prayed for Fallon and Finnegan and their families, who we imagined were pretty much like us.

It was strange that there could be such sadness on a day of beautiful sunshine in our peaceful little summer hide-a-way.

That night, in my bunk in the old garage that served as a kind of kid's room, I understood for the first time that my father, for whom I was named, was not like ordinary fathers who went to an office, drove a bus or did construction.

He was a cop. There was no guarantee that he would come home. That's when I began to understand that a police officer's job is very different from most others'.

Today, it occurs to me that back then, cops could live on a cop's salary. They didn't live fancy, but they didn't need to work another job to take care of their family. That's not the case now. Our New York City cops have to work a second or third job just to pay the mortgage and put food on the table.

How do you reconcile that financial necessity in the minds of children whose parents take those risks everyday and still have to go to another job just to pay the bills? Doesn't it say that our city doesn't truly appreciate the dangers police officers face every time they put on their uniforms? And doesn't the fact that most other major urban police departments pay more than New York underscore that this town just doesn't respect the perilous duties our police perform each day?

So what is the job worth? Can you pay a person enough money to take those risks day in and day out? Most rational people might say that they wouldn't do the job for any amount of money.

If that is the case, why shouldn't we pay our cops enough money to support their families in a modest lifestyle in the city that they serve? They run towards the man with the gun when the rest of us run away. Why should they have to work a security job or stock shelves somewhere after facing down that man with the gun?

As a result of hard-fought battles in the courts, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association won the right to present its argument for a significant raise to an independent arbitration panel. On Wednesday, the panel awarded our cops an 11.5 percent raise over two years, which breaks, for the first time in 25 years, the city's pattern-bargaining philosophy. That will be good for the cops in future bargaining sessions. But this raise will bring the starting salary of a cop up to a whopping $34,514, still way behind departments such as Newark's, the Port Authority's, Suffolk's, Nassau's and most others.

It is time for the city to wake up and recognize that the people who keep us safe, police officers and firefighters, are different from the city workers who pave the streets, plow the snow or issue paychecks. They take much greater risks and they should be compensated for that. They should be paid at least enough that they don't have to work a second job to support their families.

This raise will help a little, but our police officers are still going to be full-time heroes with part-time jobs. They deserve better.