The New York Times

May 20, 2007


The Police Are Overdue

At a time when New York City is enjoying one of the biggest budget surpluses it has ever seen, when business is healthy and crime low, the men and women of the city’s police department continue to collect the stingiest paycheck around — less than police on Long Island, Westchester and New Jersey, less even than Port Authority cops. This is deeply unfair and it must be corrected.

Contract negotiations between City Hall and the union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, have been stalemated for nearly a year, with the city asking for arbitration. Each side whines that the other is at fault for not coming to the table. Enough. It’s time for a plan to finally fix police pay before the city pays a higher price from falling morale and force strength.

This is how bad the situation is: Recruits are paid at a ridiculous annual rate of $25,100, hardly enough to survive six months of training. These men and women are expected to be well educated (with at least 2 years of college), and to pay for their own gun, a safe to stash it in, and a $500 graduation uniform. Recruits who don’t drop out often accumulate heavy debt; recruitment, meanwhile, is so far below targets that the force finds itself short by hundreds of officers of its budgeted goal of nearly 38,000.

The issue goes beyond entry pay. After five and a half years, base pay tops out at $59,588, well below the $80,000 average in major cities. Even with overtime and other perks, which the city says can boost pay to $84,000, the compensation is usually too little to support a family in the city, so New York’s force includes many suburbanites. After a while, some officers decide to take their training and experience to places like Suffolk County, where the top base pay is $94,000. The benefits are twofold: more money, and no commute.

On the plus side, New York’s cops can count on generous pensions. But pension benefits are not dramatically out of line with higher-paid forces. What’s out of line is the basic pay.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg is not a villain here. The city has moved under his leadership from debt to a surplus this year of more than $4.4 billion. He has been prudent in negotiating city labor contracts, holding firm to pattern bargaining, which keeps workers in different fields on the same trajectory. But now the city must concede that more has been asked of the police than has been given.

Pattern bargaining may make it difficult for Mr. Bloomberg to be much more generous in this round of bargaining than he was with the firefighters, who recently got a 24-month, 8 percent raise in return for lower night pay differentials and a reduced number of holidays. But City Hall needs to explore creative options, including perhaps a longer term contract that would provide for out-year raises. The union, for its part, needs to persuade its members to agree to productivity increases that can help make larger raises palatable.

Much of the city’s extraordinary good fortune has come from taxes on real estate and tourism, sectors that remains hot because New York has become attractive as a place to live, work and visit. For that, the city owes something to its police force. In Mr. Bloomberg’s previous, corporate world, a great performance would merit an increase. New York cops deserve one, at last.