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OpinionEditorial

Pay for police

Credit: Getty Images/istock/Brownie Harris

Today, we highlight a complex issue in the news, provide multiple perspectives and present our view on the controversy. Our hope is to start a conversation that better informs all of us, and we invite you to share your insights. Email letters@newsday.com with the subject line “police” or tweet to @NewsdayOpinion.

Forty years ago, police officers on Long Island had a great deal compared to the average Long Island worker.

In 1978, the average worker on Long Island earned $12,000 a year, while the average police officers in both county departments made $24,000.

Those police officers got great free health insurance, about 70 days off a year between vacation, holidays, sick leave and other paid time off, while the average worker received 20 to 30.

The police also got a termination check for banked sick and vacation pay averaging $20,000, a rarity in the private sector.

The cops also had better pensions than most civilians. And in 1978, 38% of private sector workers in the United States, and a higher percentage of head-of-household-type workers, had defined-benefit pensions. Today, only 16% do.

These 1978 numbers show a large disparity between the compensation of Long Island’s workers and its cops. Now the disparity is far larger.

Many say this huge gap is caused by the police being rewarded too richly. But what if the story is that private-sector workers are being treated too poorly?

THE CASE

Police pay grows faster

By 2001, the pay of the average worker on Long Island had grown to $40,000 while the average police officer was earning $104,000. The disparity had grown from 100% to more than 150%.

By 2008, the average worker here made $49,000 while the average police officer made $137,000. The disparity was 175%.

Last year, about half of Nassau County’s officers earned over $200,000, while one-third of Suffolk officers did. That’s 1,942 county officers on Long Island, and only 260 of them got the separation pay which sometimes balloons such totals. That separation pay averaged over $200,000, and occasionally hit $500,000.

That’s not to mention pensions that, on average, exceed $100,000 annually, and that officers can take after just 20 years on the job.

Meanwhile, the average Long Island worker earned about $60,000, paid far more for less comprehensive health care, earned no pension, and could not bank sick and vacation pay, not that they get many such days anyway.

Police compensation has grown because unions have used state laws that, in return for barring police from striking, allow them mandatory arbitration when negotiations reach impasses.

Mandatory arbitration, which only police and firefighters have, drives pay increases as every contract leapfrogs the last, and well-paid arbitrators, who must be agreed to by all parties and are wary of getting blackballed by unions, give away the store. The system also shifts blame away from county executives.

Police unions also dedicate big money to the political support of favored politicians.

Everyone is happy but the taxpayers.

THE COUNTER

Private sector backslides?

But the disparity has also grown thanks to a weakening of private-sector unions, and corporations that shortchange employee relationships.

Private-sector wage growth in the United States has stagnated since 1980. The average Long Islander's earnings have barely grown in constant dollars, while police compensation growth has doubled inflation.

Maybe many civilians make too little. Maybe civilians need a return to defined-benefit pensions instead of 401(k) plans. Maybe civilians need ample sick leave and vacation time and better health insurance.

THE CONTEXT

Dangers and needed reforms

Police officers do dangerous work, often with great dedication, and Long Islanders generally support them. Tragedies like Officer Anastasios Tsakos being killed by an alleged drunken driver on the Long Island Expressway in Queens last month intensify that support.

But the nation is grappling with police reform amid the deaths of Black men at the hands of police, and the structure, culture and methods of law enforcement are under scrutiny.

Most residents don’t seem to mind officers earning a very good wage — top base pay now is $122,000 in Nassau and $140,000 in Suffolk — or receiving generous pensions. They do complain about other compensation excesses.

OUR TAKE

Truth is in the middle

A 2013 study by the Empire Center of 136 mandatory arbitration decisions in New York found raises were granted in every case and they, on average, exceeded inflation. The deck is stacked, and when mandatory arbitration comes up for renewal in 2024, it should be allowed to lapse.

Police salaries shouldn’t be growing faster than civilian pay. 

A smart 2012 state law limits overtime padding of pensions to 15% of the total, but only applies to those hired after that year. Meanwhile, there must be stricter limits on termination payouts and elected officials need to push down sick and vacation days to reasonable levels.

But in private sector companies, wages should grow with productivity gains. Valuable employees should be valued. Reasonable pensions should return, granted in combination with 401(k)s. And workers should get the time off they need, for rest and illness and caring for family.

Police salaries shouldn’t be growing faster than civilian pay. For now, they should freeze, and perks should be reined in.

In the long run, the income and benefits of public servants can’t grow more quickly than the income of the public, because the public eventually will be unable to pay.

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