The New York Times

May 22, 2007


A Race for Jobs in Police Departments on Long Island

By COREY KILGANNON

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — At John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, as soon as fliers advertising the police academy entrance exams on Long Island are posted, they are routinely ripped down, presumably by applicants for the tests who do not want the word to spread.

More than 28,000 people have registered to take the Suffolk County police test on June 9, some from far-flung states and many from the ranks of the New York Police Department, where resignations have risen significantly in recent years. Fewer than 2 percent of Suffolk’s test-takers will end up on the force — compared with roughly 10 percent in New York — making it perhaps the most competitive entry-level law enforcement job in the country.

The Web site advertising $400 test-preparation classes at an American Legion post here is none too subtle about why: “Highest Paid Police Department in the Country!” screams the banner headline about Suffolk.

“This is basically your dream job as a police officer,” said Jonathan Kebabjian, 26, an auto repair assessor taking the class in preparation for both the Suffolk test and the one in Nassau County in August. The tests are typically given every four years.

Nassau County officials would not speculate on how many applicants they would wind up getting, but noted that previous tests had attracted more than 20,000 takers.

Eugene O’Donnell, a professor of law and police studies at John Jay, said the high pay coupled with low crime rates make a coveted Long Island job “like winning the lottery in law enforcement.”

“It’s a real me-versus-you mind-set,” he added. “When I announce the test in class, I actually get dirty looks from some students who’ve already registered and don’t want to see the test pool broadened so it lessens their chances.”

Starting salary on the 2,692-member Suffolk force is $57,811 — compared with $25,100 when entering the New York Police Department academy and $32,700 after six months at the department — and rises after five years to $97,958 ($59,588 in New York). With overtime, many members of the Suffolk department routinely make more than $100,000.

Nassau’s salaries are lower — $34,000 to start, $91,737 after seven years — but as the county executive, Thomas R. Suozzi, announced with fanfare last month, average pay in the 2,686-member department, with overtime, was $125,000 last year.

More pay — and less risk: Nassau, as Mr. Suozzi pointed out, has the lowest crime rate in the nation of any place with more than one million people, and Suffolk is not far behind. The two counties are predominantly sprawling suburbs and shore towns, with relatively few pockets of hard-core poverty and crime.

In 2005, the Nassau County police reported to the F.B.I. 1,793 violent crimes — or 1.35 for every 1,000 residents — with 16 homicides and 76 forcible rapes. The Suffolk police reported 2,446 violent crimes, or 1.7 per 1,000 residents, with 28 homicides and 82 forcible rapes. New York City reported 54,623 violent crimes, for a rate of 6.8 per 1,000 residents, with 539 killings and 1,412 forcible rapes.

Based on statistics of reported crime, residents of Nassau and Suffolk are less than one-third as likely to be crime victims as New York City residents, said Dr. Andrew Karmen, a sociology professor at John Jay.

“In the city you’re running from one job to the next, and many are serious crimes,” said Elizabeth Campos, 34, a former New York City police sergeant who quit to take a patrol officer’s post in Nassau. “There’s crime here too, but a lot of calls are for, say, a house alarm going off.”

Officer Campos said about 60 of the 145 people in her academy class in Nassau came from the New York ranks, noting, “Even as a rookie, I took home more money than I did as a sergeant in the N.Y.P.D. with 10 years on.”

Nassau and Suffolk officials said Officer Campos’s experience was typical, with one-third to one-half of their recruits generally coming from the huge department to the west.

Paul J. Browne, the deputy New York police commissioner for public information, said that the city did not keep track of where departing officers went, but that money ranked second among reasons cited for resignations, after poor performance in the police academy. The city’s police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, has called the $25,000 starting pay “an insult” to police officers and noted that it was the result of an arbitrator’s decision in 2005.

Officials at the New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association estimated that it costs its police department $100,000 to attract, test, investigate and train a new police officer. The union president, Patrick J. Lynch, said in a statement that “the loss of experienced officers has reached alarming levels.”

“Resignations grew from 635 quitting in 2004 to 902 quitting in 2006, many of whom left to take better paying jobs in other police departments,” the statement said. “There is a clearly defined trend showing that, as N.Y.P.D. salaries slipped behind other law enforcement agencies, the number of fully trained and experienced N.Y.P.D. officers who quit for other jobs grew dramatically.”

While the New York police require applicants to have 60 college credits, officers in Suffolk need only to have completed high school (Nassau requires 32 college credits). The high salaries, which have largely been the result of decisions by arbitration panels since the 1980’s, are a charged political issue in both counties, where residents want both lower taxes and low crime.

The frenzy over the test has been a staple for years; once, more than 40,000 people signed up for the Suffolk exam. If the Long Island departments have no problem recruiting, their tests have faced other challenges, chiefly complaints of discrimination. Both departments are under federal consent decrees mandating the increase of minority officers and women in their ranks, and the entrance exams were overhauled in the 1980s amid complaints of bias.

Women make up 10.8 percent of Nassau’s force; it is 4.3 percent black, and 5.4 percent Hispanic. In Suffolk, fully four out of five officers are white men; 2.4 percent of the force is African-American, 7.5 percent Hispanic. Lt. Bob Donahue, head of recruiting for the Suffolk County police, said he had met with local minority leaders over the past two years, urging them to encourage young people to take the tests, and that one in four of this year’s applicants are black or Hispanic.

But Andre Collins, a retired Suffolk detective who is black and leads a coalition of minority law enforcement officials in the county, complained that the departments are “still doing just enough to look good, not really addressing the real problems.” He said the $100 test fee, for example, “deters folks of modest means from taking it.”

Lieutenant Donahue said the fee could be waived for those demonstrating financial need.

After complaints that earlier tests — which, like the SAT, emphasized cognitive skills — favored white men, officials in both counties said they had drawn new exams by interviewing top-performing officers of diverse backgrounds and devising questions in hopes of finding similar candidates.

Allen Hartvik, chief of examinations for Suffolk County’s Civil Service Commission, said this year’s test was prepared by a consulting firm and focuses on biographical questions about the applicant. Nassau’s test has multiple choice and true/false questions addressing “work, school and general life experiences that are associated with successful performance of law enforcement duties” and “personality traits that are associated with successful performance of law enforcement duties,” according to the description the department posted online.

At the American Legion Hall here in Hempstead last week, test-preppers included commuters from Connecticut and New Jersey looking to change careers, who rattled off the qualities that have made the Long Island jobs legendary in police circles: top pay, low crime rates, streamlined work schedules that are often three 12-hour days a week, and retirement after 20 years.

There was Frank Perotta, 19, of Woodmere, N.Y., who hoped his law enforcement classes at Nassau Community College would sharpen him for the test. There was Pat Martinez, 25, of Franklin Square, also on Long Island, who wanted a police job in either county but would not consider working for lower pay in New York or other departments.

Suffolk’s deadline was April 11; Nassau is accepting applicants until June 8. Each county hires from a list based on the top finishers until the next test, usually four years later.

A New York City police officer with five years on the job said he was taking both the Nassau and Suffolk tests “purely for the money.”

“An officer here tops out at $59,000,” said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so his New York police bosses would not find out. “Even though I’m on the list to be promoted to sergeant where I can max out at $76,000, I could be basically be guaranteed to make $100,000 on Long Island within a few years.”