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Brass grasp at straw

Empty 'scarecrows' to slow speeders prove NYPD short-staffed, sez union

BY WILLIAM SHERMAN DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER

Car 54, where's your police officer?

The NYPD is using unmanned police cars on major highways as a deterrent to speeders, the Daily News has learned.

The vacant vehicles — derisively referred to as scarecrows by some cops — were blasted by the city's police union chief as a "symptom of drastic short-staffing."

Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch said, "We don't have enough people to man the radio cars. Since 9/11, we're down 4,000 officers, and we don't have the ability to recruit new officers or keep veterans."

"You cannot train an unmanned radio car to fight terrorism," he added angrily.

Lynch's charges — made against the backdrop of increasingly bitter PBA contract negotiations with the city — were denied by NYPD officials and by James Hanley, commissioner of the city's Office of Labor Relations.

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"The unmanned cars are there to help prevent accidents, nothing to do with short-staffing," said an NYPD spokesman who asked not to be identified.

The scarecrows — as many as six at a time — have been placed on the Belt Parkway, the Long Island Expressway, the Cross Bronx Expressway and other roads at locations with a high rate of accidents for about six months, according to the NYPD.

"People see the cars and they slow down," said the spokesman.

At the same time, the patrol officers who might have been in the cars can "cover other areas." Characterizing the use of six unmanned cars as evidence of short-staffing "is wrong," said the NYPD official.

"It's done in New Jersey, in California, out on Long Island, all over," said the spokesman. "It's not new."

Hanley, the city's pointman in negotiations with the PBA, said, "It's ridiculous to think that the use of unmanned cars is the result of short-staffing."

"I've been going down to the Jersey shore for a long time, and the Garden State Parkway police have been doing it for years," he added.

Lynch disclosed the use of the scarecrows during a lengthy interview with The News' editorial board on the PBA's positions in the contract negotiations.

There is no dispute over the fact that the city is having a hard time finding recruits to fill Police Academy training classes and that veterans are leaving the department in droves for higher-paying law enforcement jobs in the metropolitan area.

Lynch blames the problem on the lack of competitive salaries.

Rookie cops start out at $25,100, and pay maxes out at $59,588, which lags behind salaries paid by other police departments in the metropolitan area, including the Port Authority, by as much as 30%, according to surveys.

"We want our salaries brought up to market rate," Lynch said, referring to PA salaries, which start at $38,249 and shoot up to $83,141 after five years.

Hanley told The News that the city has been more than willing to grant pay hikes that would raise starting pay by $13,000 and top pay "up to the mid-60s."

"We've tried many, many times to solve this, but the PBA has refused to negotiate, refused to participate in the process, which is surprising because we've been able to settle contracts for 325,000 other city employees, white collar, blue collar, what have you," Hanley said.

Lynch countered that the city is only interested in "pattern bargaining," giving the PBA the same raises employees of other city agencies have received. "We're not interested in that."

There are numerous other unresolved issues. For example, the city wants givebacks such as fewer vacation days for new cops in return for the pay hikes, a proposal that the PBA opposes.

With talks at an impasse since July, the city threw the negotiations into binding arbitration by the state Public Employment Relations Board. The cops have been without a contract since August 2004.

wsherman@nydailynews.com