The NYPD: Good But Very, Very Expensive

Most people agree that the NYPD has done a really good job.  But with the contract for police officers now going to arbitration, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association wants us to think we’ve had a good deal.  That isn’t necessarily so.  In fact, we’ve paid a huge price for the level of police protection we have received, according to local government data from governments division of the U.S. Census Bureau – even if the police officers, on average, haven’t received a big paycheck.

In Fiscal 2004, this source reports, the City of New York spent $11.01 on police protection for every $1,000 of its residents’ personal income.  The City, therefore, had to collect about 1.1% of our income in taxes to pay for it.  The national average was $6.21 in police spending per $1,000 of personal income, requiring local taxes of about 0.6% of income.  The rest of New York state, and New Jersey, were about average.  For New York City residents, the NYPD costs one out of every $200 they earn MORE than they would have to pay if they lived elsewhere.  And the city’s spending on correction, at $3.70 per $1,000 of personal income, was nearly double the national average as well.

The high cost isn’t because patrolmen actually on the force are overpaid.  In the second quarter of 2005, excluding the high-paid finance and insurance industries, the average private sector worker in the Downstate area of New York earned 27.5 percent more than the national average; for full year data, this ratio is typically around 33 percent.  The higher average wage here is associated with a higher cost of living, so it reasonable for public employees also to expect earn 25 percent to 35 percent more than average. 

But in March 2005, the Census Bureau reports, New York City’s police officers earned 19.9 percent more than police officers nationwide.  The city’s police officers, like its teachers, have been above the national average by significantly less than the New York area’s private-sector workers, with overtime-juiced post 9/11 period excepted, for many years.   Meanwhile, police officers in New Jersey earned 36.7% more than average in March 2005, and those in the rest of New York State, much of which is in low-cost Upstate New York, earned 28.3% more than average.  More detailed data from March 2002 and prior years show that, by national standards, police officers in the Downstate Suburbs are vastly overpaid.  While it isn’t reasonable to expect New York City residents to be able to pay that much, there is a case for a bit more of a raise for the NYPD based on national numbers.

That is, if pay alone is considered.  New York City’s public employee unions, however, have traditionally chosen richer pensions for those cashing in and moving out rather than more pay for those being hired, a choice epitomized by the rich 2000 pension deal followed by Mayor Bloomberg’s contract cutting the pay of newly-hired officers by 25 percent.  Why did Mayor Bloomberg agree to this?  Who knows?  In an event, the cost of employing each police officer continues to soar, with pension contributions expected to reach nearly 50 percent of payroll in Fiscal 2007, even as the City finds it difficult to hire qualified officers.  The PBA officials must be laughing at a man who became a billionaire in finance, from their homes in the suburbs and Florida, and looking forward to a decline in the quality of policing here.  Essentially, we’ve got one police force on duty, and two more being paid to do nothing while retired.

Actually we have three police forces on duty, and six more being paid to do nothing while retired.

In March 2005, the Census Bureau reports, New York City had 561 police offices per 100,000 residents, more than 2.7 times the national average of 205.  The rest of New York State was about average, New Jersey barely half the level of New York City.  With a virtual army in blue, you’d expect the police force to be able to respond to crime.  Consider the words of the current Mayor of San Diego, the former police chief Jerry Sanders, when he was running for the office and facing a budget crisis brought on by (you guessed it) the enrichment and under-funding of public employee pensions.

“Let me draw a distinction between New York City and San Diego. They both achieved the same crime decline results in the '90s. New York City with five officers per thousand; San Diego with 1.6 officers per thousand. What that does is, it forces you to think of different ways to work with the community. It forces you to have different ways of thinking about how you handle crime problems.  New York City's strategy was zero tolerance. And they achieved a great decline in crime. We approached it from we're going to work with each community, those communities are going to teach us what they want us to do and they're going to have expectations that we do it. We achieved the same thing. Crime is still low in San Diego.”  San Diego Union-Tribune, October 16, 2005

Why do those, like the New York Post, who for years insisted that the city’s schools (with their below-average staffing) make bricks without straw, not object to the cost of NYPD staffing levels and pensions and insist on “different ways of thinking.”  Because like the mega-staffed public schools out in the suburbs, the quality of policing matters to the Post, so suddenly the additional spending is a worthwhile investment.   A Lexus price for a Lexus police force is therefore OK. 

Perhaps it is needed.  In the early 1990s, when the NYPD’s staffing was just a little more than double the national average rather than close to triple, crime was double the national average too.  Perhaps it is only those additional officers who prevent crime, while the first 410 officers per 100,000 residents patrol parades and such.  Perhaps the tendency toward criminality here is so great that without the army of officers to keep a lid on, crime would once again be double the national average rather than lower than average.  And just when the arguments in favor of a smaller force seemed to be getting through (the number of police officers is down from the peak), the threat of terrorism came along to demand additional resources.

Looking at all the numbers, however, while the PBA could make an argument that its members are underpaid, it is the new recruits who are the most underpaid of all, and who should get most of any money available for raises.  And before they accuse city residents of being cheapskates for not wanting to pay much more, they should be forced to confront the total burden of police services on taxpayers.  They don’t want to pay that much either.  That’s why most of them live in the suburbs.

Note:  you can download spreadsheets with this and other data on comparative public employment, pay and finance by going through my prior posts.