The New York Times

August 11, 2005

City in a Dispute Over Recruiting Police Officers at $25,100 a Year


Aix weeks ago, a state panel ruling on a bitter pay dispute between City Hall and New York's police officers awarded raises of more than 10 percent to over 22,000 frontline members of the force. The panel said that the officers deserved the money, and that the increases would bring the department's pay system more in line with those of other cities and nearby counties.

But now, the Bloomberg administration and the main police union are locked in another dispute, this one over the implications of and responsibility for one provision of the state panel's ruling: the decision to reduce the salaries for men and women newly hired on the force to $25,100 a year.

Since the announcement of the settlement, which both sides approved, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has blamed the union, saying that favoring the pay reduction for new officers rather than comparable savings in salary or benefits for older ones has made it harder for the department to attract recruits.

The union, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, is blaming the city for the new low starting salary. Its president, Patrick J. Lynch, has contended that it was the city that proposed reducing the starting salary from $34,500 -- and that city officials had even suggested dropping it to $23,000.

''They asked for it, they got it, and now they have to deal with it,'' Mr. Lynch said.

Accusations aside, the Police Department's top officials, union officers and experts outside the department are now seriously trying to gauge the impact of the starting-salary reduction on recruiting, and on the morale of a department that may find itself with the equivalent of a two-tier pay structure for many officers.

Officers entering the force at the new salary will have to work seven years before their pay stubs can equal those of their counterparts -- some of whom may have been hired just months earlier. And the $25,100 starting salary amounts to less than half the starting pay for the department mechanics who fix patrol cars.

''Obviously, no one is going to say it's good for recruiting. I just don't know how bad it is,'' said Michael P. Jacobson, a former city correction and probation commissioner who, as a city official, also oversaw the Police Department's budget.

To others, like Robert J. McGuire, a former police commissioner who said he was ''shocked'' by the new salary structure, the implications are graver: a poorer quality of recruit; pay so low that corruption becomes more tempting; a loss of officers earlier in their careers to better-paying departments in surrounding counties.

Policing is ''more important than it has ever been in the history of our city because of terrorism,'' Mr. McGuire said. ''There is such a focus on the security of the city and fighting terrorism. Those of us in the business thought you needed the best possible people before, and now it's more heightened.''

City and department officials recognize the challenge but have so far sought to downplay the implications.

''It's too soon to say what impact it may have -- we just don't know right now,'' said Paul J. Browne, the Police Department's deputy commissioner of public information. He said that the overall impact of the lower salary will remain unclear until candidates for the January Police Academy class -- the first to receive it -- sign up for the Civil Service test to become officers, take the exam and then decide whether they want the job.

Still, the dimensions of the task loom large. Because of attrition patterns based in some measure on large hires more than 20 years ago, the department has brought on roughly 10,000 new officers over the past three and a half years and will have to hire at least 7,700 more during the next three, Mr. Browne said.

Toward that end, he said, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly has assembled a group of business executives he has used before to advise him on recruiting strategy. The group, which includes people from publishing and investment banking, met once with Mr. Kelly last month and will continue to meet periodically, Mr. Browne said.

The next test for police applicants is scheduled for Oct. 29, for the January class. Since the filing period for the exam opened on July 6, 10,568 people have signed up for the test; the period ends Sept. 16. Mr. Browne said that about 30 percent of those who sign up for the exam show up for the test, and the rule of thumb has been that the department needs 10 people with a passing grade for each officer it hires.

The department has faced recruiting problems in the past, with interest in a police career waning in the years after the torture of Abner Louima at a police station in 1997 and the death of Amadou Diallo in a hail of 41 police bullets in 1999. While gains followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, they were largely offset as thousands of officers chose to retire after earning large amounts of overtime that year.

Mr. Kelly's focus on recruitment has included working to create a force that better reflects the city it polices. He expanded recruitment at colleges and military bases and allowed applicants to file for the test online. But the police union's constant complaints about police pay have not helped, department officials contended.

Several people inside and outside city government have said that the Bloomberg administration approved the new salary structure without checking with Mr. Kelly, who, according to several current and former officials, was deeply troubled with the lower starting pay.

The commissioner declined to be interviewed for this article, but he acknowledged last month that the new starting salary was a ''major recruiting challenge.''

Michael Julian, who retired as the department's chief of personnel in 1994, said that while he had favored a lower rate for officers in the academy -- when they carry no weapons and do not enforce the law -- the $25,100 salary was so low that it hovered around what a security guard might make.

''It's just too, too low,'' he said. ''When you look at the money that these other departments are getting in small suburbs, making $100,000 a year, and you compare it, how do you attract them and how do you retain them?''

Thomas A. Reppetto, the president of the Citizens Crime Commission and the author of a history of the New York Police Department, said that the city would solve the problem because, in the face of the threat of a terrorist attack, it must. The city, he said, will have to institute a tax dedicated to raising police salaries so that they are competitive with surrounding communities and to increasing the size of the force above the current 37,038.

''I just think the logic of the situation will require that an assessment be made of how large the police force should be and how much we need to pay recruits at a time when the demands on the police force are very heavy,'' he said.

Correction: August 15, 2005, Monday Because of an editing error, an article and a headline on Thursday about a dispute over pay for New York City police recruits referred imprecisely to their new starting salary. They will be paid at an annual rate of $25,100 for the first 6 months, while they are in training at the Police Academy, and at a rate of $32,700 for the next 18, after they begin patrolling the streets. Thus the total for their first year on the job is $28,900, not $25,100.