January 17, 2008

Suffolk, don't cut pay for rookie cops


A reach to cut the cost of police services in Suffolk may exceed the grasp of notoriously tightfisted County Executive Steve Levy, but if he's successful, his reach could cause a rumble in Nassau.

Levy wouldn't be Levy if he didn't at least try to include police in his countywide cost-cutting. In his first term he accelerated the practice of replacing high-priced police professionals with more-than-adequate civilians in clerical posts and other roles.

In his first campaign Levy promised to explore other ways to ensure a better return on investment in the Suffolk County Police Department, including turning over the responsibility for patrolling the Long Island Expressway to the State Police, as is done on the Northern and Southern State parkways.

In outlining some proposals for this (still) new year, Levy expressed his goal of lowering salaries for new officers in the next contract. Police on Long Island are among the best paid in the nation, and since the cost of living here is among the highest in the nation, lowering salaries for rookies may be a way to reduce costs while maintaining high-quality police services.

Taxpayers in Nassau have a stake in Suffolk's upcoming police contract. Generous deals with the Nassau County Police Department are what enabled officers in Suffolk to win similar awards in arbitration. Salaries have been driven upward with each new contract, back-and-forth across the county line.

As a result, today we have elite, professional police officers from all over competing to be here. Should Levy succeed in trimming salaries for new officers in Suffolk, budget-cutters in Nassau could cite the new contract as a precedent, putting the process in reverse. But would that be progress?

The subject of police salaries is a hot topic on Long Island, and many contrast our cops' pay with that of officers in New York City. New members of the New York City Police Department begin their careers earning less than $33,000 per year. After five years of service, salaries rise to approximately $60,000. In Suffolk after five years, an officer earns nearly $98,000.

That presents an irony: Long Island is often regarded as the minor leagues for those dreaming of a career in New York City. But in this case, the NYPD appears to be the training ground for a major-league career on Long Island.

The brass ring of a healthy salary and a middle-class life is here, and it attracts many ambitious, experienced and elite officers from the city. Good salaries attract the best people and reward ethical, professional behavior.

But are we paying too much? Think about this: With mortgages, taxes, tuitions, car payments, etc., $90,000 to $100,000 a year is what it takes to lead a middle-class life on much of Long Island. Commensurate with the value of their service, police officers should be able to afford to live here, in the communities they serve. And remember, police officers pay taxes, too.

There's also a social dimension to the issue: Good-paying jobs as police officers, teachers, firefighters and others are avenues for social advancement for families, encouraging new generations of professionals and taxpayers. Look at our own New York history, especially in the city, where immigrant Irish police officers built the foundation for their children to make major contributions to our culture in all avenues of civic life.

Along with the intrinsic rewards of a career in law enforcement, young people who seek a role in our Long Island community, including our newest citizens, should see the advantages of study and diligence in pursuing a career as a police officer - including its financial rewards.

The 33 grand offered to NYPD rookies is a crime: They deserve more. It doesn't make it there, and doesn't anywhere near make it here. It's up to you, Long Island, New York.

David North is a journalist and broadcaster for Long Island's WALK-FM. He is a board member of the Society of Professional Journalists/Press Club of Long Island.