When the police are the exception to austerity politics

Suddenly, conservatives who bash public workers are silent

Published April 11, 2014 3:31PM (EDT)

In this era of government austerity, particularly at the state and local levels, the median police salary in the small township of Saddle Brook, N.J., is more than $120,000. Virtually the entire force enjoys six-figure annual incomes. In North Brunswick, about an hour down the Garden State Parkway, the median police salary is over $110,000. Francis "Mac" Womack, the Democratic mayor of North Brunswick since 2012, defends this seemingly excessive compensation on the grounds that, while he "can go to sleep at night if we cut a recreation program," he can't sleep if his township is "doing without public safety" (the mayor did not specify who, exactly, was advocating a policy of no public safety).

The people who work at or attend recreation programs in North Brunswick must have felt all warm and fuzzy after hearing that. One expects this kind of sentiment from a law-and-order Republican, but this is a Democratic mayor of a blue city, with a relatively low crime rate.

In Suffolk County, N.Y., where I live, the police unions just secured significant raises for all levels of officers, despite persistent fiscal deficits causing genuinely dangerous recent cuts to social spending. Compensation for Suffolk County cops, already astronomically high by both state and national standards, was apparently insufficient. Now, base pay for sergeants will exceed $160,000 by 2018; detectives will make well over $200,000. These public servants now find themselves in the top 2 percent of the income scale (no doubt this level of pay is necessary in order for them to effectively Protect and Serve™). There was virtually no serious resistance to these raises, which are indefensible on the merits, from either side of the local political class.

The fact that influential conservatives are reliably silent about the issue of police salaries further illustrates how their austerity agenda is just a cover for ideological warfare. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has spent his entire tenure in office railing about teachers and their nefarious unions -- accusing them of "19th century thinking," ridiculing teachers who ask for raises, and bullying them at every opportunity. But if Christie had even a shred of political integrity, he would direct some of his wrath toward the state police, and their union, for the money they are soaking from taxpayers. New Jersey state troopers are the highest-paid in the country (N.J. has the distinction of having both the highest-paid municipal police and the highest-paid state police). During Christie's first term, in a particularly appalling scandal, it was revealed that six state troopers had cashed in nearly $276,000 in overtime pay alone while overseeing a construction project on the New Jersey Turnpike. Imagine the kind of rage we would have seen from Christie if teachers or lowly bureaucrats had done something similar.

Of course, Christie is far from the only Republican leader who applies his alleged principles selectively. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin famously exempted police officers and firefighters from his attack on public sector unions in the state. When it comes to confronting police unions, and, in general, applying their austerity agenda to ideological allies, most Republicans are either spineless, nakedly hypocritical or both. What else is new?

But the fact that liberals and progressives are not howling over these obscene police salaries is rather striking. Because what is more anathema to a progressive worldview than withdrawing desperately needed funding from programs that treat victims of  HIV/AIDS, or help prevent suicides, while increasing cops' already enormous salaries? In Suffolk County, groups like the Long Island Association for AIDS Care, Response of Suffolk County, and other nonprofits exist under constant threat of losing their already meager funding, while cops receive a seemingly endless succession of pay raises (after being threatened with $3 million in cuts, Suffolk's nonprofits ended up losing "only" $1.6 million in the most recent budget, as the county was putting the final touches on the contract appropriating $372 million in additional pay for police over the next five years).

And the problem here is not just the heinous spectacle of elevating police pay into the stratosphere while simultaneously pinching pennies on existing social programs. It's that additional social spending, no matter how badly it might be needed, is virtually a non-starter when law enforcement sucks all the oxygen out of budgets. In Suffolk, where there is an escalating heroin crisis, lawmakers were recently informed by Jeffrey L. Reynolds, an addiction expert who heads the Long Island Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence -- which itself has been targeted for cuts -- that the county "by and large doesn't have a lot of resources in it, is not supportive of recovery." The police union, on the other hand, is presumably quite satisfied with the county's "resources" and "support."

As unconscionable as all of this is, at least Saddle Brook, North Brunswick and Suffolk are wealthy locales, with median incomes well above the national average. Consider the even more egregious case of Desert Hot Springs, Calif., a city of 27,000 profiled by the New York Times in December because of the shocking disconnect between the economic fortunes of its residents and the 39 members of its police force. The poverty rate in Desert Hot Springs is nearly 30 percent. The median household income, as of 2011, was $31,356 -- while the average compensation package (including salary and benefits) for a police officer was $177,203. As the city careened toward bankruptcy, 66 percent of the $10.6 million budget signed into law in the spring of 2013 was appropriated for the police. Eventually, the desperate city council was left no choice but to intervene, and they voted unanimously to slash pay by 22 percent. Now, the police union is suing Desert Hot Springs over the cuts, and if the city loses, it will be staring bankruptcy in the face.

Desert Hot Springs might be an extreme case, but it's hardly unique. In San Bernardino -- one of the poorest big cities in the United States -- the police recently secured their second major salary increase since the city filed for bankruptcy in August of 2012 (at that point it was the largest city to ever file for bankruptcy in the U.S). In related news, over that same time period, the city has implemented savage, across-the-board spending cuts. The new raises will bring police salaries in San Bernardino in line with those in 10 other cities, "most much wealthier, with higher per-capita income." The issue, of course, is not police salaries, per se, but the opportunity costs, particularly in a down economy: San Bernardino's residents, nearly 35 percent of whom are in poverty, would surely benefit from increased social spending. But that's not even on the radar.

Thinking about exorbitant police salaries and unjustifiable raises is inherently awkward for progressives. Most progressives instinctively rise in defense of the entire class of unionized government employees, which is admirable, and perfectly understandable, given that these workers have, for decades, been the target of an unrelenting economic assault at the hands of conservatives. But distinctions among public workers need to be recognized. A detective with a compensation package that places him squarely in the ranks of the economic elite exists in an entirely different economic, social and political universe than the average government bureaucrat making $25,000 per year.

Furthermore, public safety unions, and police unions in particular, are often quite conservative in their politics. And in the age of Occupy, stop-and-frisk, and increasingly visible police brutality, law enforcement's infatuation with its own power and its integral role in preserving the social status quo have become clearer than ever. As a result, the ideological disconnect between police and the left is widening. To take one example, in 2012, it was discovered that, for six years, the union representing Boston's police officers had been circulating grotesquely offensive newsletters. These newsletters contained bigoted attacks against "minorities, women, progressives, gays, Muslims, and even crime victims." Occupy Boston activists were described as "losers, anarchists, graying hippies, level-three sex offenders, fakes, frauds, phonies, and nitwits." It goes without saying that these newsletters do not represent the views of all members of the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association. But it's hardly a secret that cops across the country do view these groups, most of which are allied with the left, with sheer contempt.

At an Occupy Wall Street protest I attended in 2011, one of the chants that circulated several times throughout the day was, "Cops, come join us, they want your pensions, too!" At the time, I thought it was an interesting tactic, one that could potentially force some of the notoriously stoic officers to confront, at least internally, the fact that their own economic interests are not aligned with those of the plutocrats who so desperately need them to protect their property and control the masses.

But there is no evidence that this process of enlightenment has taken place. When cops are violently cracking down on protesters, or demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars in pay while residents suffer and cities go bankrupt, they make their allegiance known, and people who object to these things should make their allegiance known, too. Right now, the most practical way to do that is to oppose -- actively and vehemently -- their attempts to dominate budgets by pursuing their own economic interests at all costs, and insist instead on prioritizing critical social spending.

By Justin Doolittle

MORE FROM Justin Doolittle

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Editor's Picks Long Island New Jersey Occupy Wall Street Police Public Employees Public Workers Salaries