Military and Police

Police Force Rooted in Politics?

It’s rhetorical, actually. Given that police forces are operated by local, county and state governments —like other public services such as sanitation, fire/rescue, parks/recreation, etc.— politics is a part-and-parcel ingredient with varying degrees of support or havoc. How each political sect sees its police cadre, and the level of relative autonomy or outright control in which they are rooted, has much to do with cop contentment and efficiency in doing an unorthodox job best done by those who had the intestinal fortitude to become sworn. According to current census, the United States’ population of 329,031,000 has roughly 900,000 law enforcement officers among them. Quite a disparity, huh?

Despite the aforementioned disparity, most citizens are law-abiding thus softening the blow to cops working the streets. But, it is not necessarily only the malfeasants in our society which create havoc for cops; politicians have their hands in the mix as well, and sometimes it is downright ugly.

I came across a story recently which exemplifies our discussion perfectly, although it has negative connotations. This particular example of political mismanagement of police lives and their value to the community transpired in one of the two counties where we are seeing a mop-up of utter election shenanigans: Palm Beach County, Florida. For what it is worth, yes, it is known as a Democratic bastion.

Glaringly, a Forbes investigative report exposed the indifference some local governments have when it comes to placing value on their police contingents, often selling-out and yanking the rug from under the duty boots of law men and women.

Diane Oakley, a writer specializing in retirement constructs, wrote that “defined benefits” (DB, aka pensions) is but “one way that employers [including police departments] send a loud signal to employees that they are committed to a long-term relationship. The structure of a pension increases the financial value of a DB pension benefit over an employee’s career. This provides a meaningful incentive for employees to stay in their jobs.” That has applications beyond law enforcement entities and transcends other employers as well, but we are analyzing a law enforcement episode.

So, what happened at the Town of Palm Beach Police Department only a few years ago? A poor decision based on fiscal chess-playing effectively strong-armed many of its cops to gaze upon other horizons, namely police departments which showed appreciation and catered the monetary means indicating how much they value their cops. In a nutshell, Palm Beach police pensions were horribly derailed, compelling cops to go elsewhere.

As Oakley put it: “Offering pensions is particularly important in the public sector where salaries are low and employers can’t offer benefits like stock options. The recruitment and retention effects of pensions are key reasons why the public sector has maintained this type of retirement plan, especially for public safety officers [emphasis added].” Oakley cited a National Institute on Retirement Security study which focused on public sector teachers, indicating “pensions are unique in that they provide a financial incentive for teachers to stay on the job. As a result, schools have more experienced teachers in the classroom, which ultimately benefits students and education.”

Same principles apply when substituting police officers in their roles providing law and order for the public in communities all across America. It all boils down to value added/value gained.

“In 2012, the Palm Beach Town Council ignored the predictions of its police and firefighters and voted to cut pension benefits to roughly one-third of their prior value while adding a 401(k)-like DC plan to its benefit package. That action destroyed the long-term value proposition that played a fundamental role in retaining the police officers and firefighters.” Boom, just like that the town’s elected leaders disemboweled the pillars which relatively comfortably cemented cops in their posts. Telegraphing a statement such as Do your twenty or whatever. Sorry we don’t have a nest egg to see you through retirement…holds no water whatsoever.

Oakley implies the market crash just prior to 2012 may have been the catalyst for the Palm Beach officials’ decision to gut the handsome benefits (pensions) to which the public safety officers were accustomed. In fact, the Town was once known for its generous employee benefits packages, attracting public safety applicants from all over. Nevertheless, times changed and politicians at that time opted out of those beautiful benefits ideals, and that dissuaded cops and firefighters from hanging on any longer.

After a series of heated town council meetings to avert pension cuts, the town’s politicians voted down pension benefits which, as Oakley stated, would likely “fuel attrition.” It did.

“The impacts were swift and deep, By ‘freezing’ the pensions of 120 police officers and firefighters, 20 percent of the town’s workforce elected to retire right away,” Oakley reported. Anyone in public safety knows the inherent value of senior officers and the vast vault of experience they take with them when departures ensue. Younger cops lose out on all that wisdom, so the losses run deeper than actually acknowledged. But that was just the beginning of the domino effect and tumbled public safety professionals. “What followed was a mass exodus of employees,” wrote Oakley.

Writing for the Palm Beach Daily News, Michele Dargan reported that “When police and firefighters begged the Town Council not to slash pensions during initial 2009 discussion, their message fell on deaf ears. [Then] Council President David Rosow made it perfectly clear that if employees didn’t like the changes, they could leave.

“Invitation accepted,” Dargan wrote, adding that “an exodus of police officers and firefighters began even before the pension cuts took effect on May 1, 2012.” Sure, both cops and firefighters are keen on politicking and how it can often discount them and undermine their importance to the communities they serve. With big bold letters advertising forthcoming economic impacts staring you in the face, would you stay where you are while poles turn your pockets inside-out and play roulette with your future?

Supporting his stance, Rosow argued unambiguously: “If they’re unhappy about staying and working in some place, staying there is the worst thing they can do. It affects them. It affects their work performance. It effects their families. If they’re unhappy, they should leave and find another job.” How’s that for a boot in the ass and a Bye, Felicia sendoff?

Putting it into context, Town of Palm Beach police pension board attorney Robert Klausner said, “The elected officials made a value judgment. What they did with the pensions in Palm Beach was terrible. It was all about the money and nothing about the human beings providing the service. In my opinion, they devalued the people who provide the service.”

Rosow’s position may have been rooted in interests of pension reform, citing “unsustainable” and “escalating pensions” with unhealthy outlooks, necessitating trimming. At the time, Town Manager Peter Elwell cited a “projected budget deficit of $5.8 million.” Forgive my uncritical thinking, but personal observations when I resided in Palm Beach County years ago were stimulated by a robust and affluent oceanfront county with tons of beautiful people motoring about town in luxury automobiles casting shadows on sun-drenched streets nicely-paved (thanks to a muscular tax-base) with egresses in/out of massive malls lined with palm trees.

Although my observations of Palm Beach are admittedly superficial, Dargan’s report included public records acquisitions, among which she qualified some of my allusions: “In Palm Beach, where at least 28 billionaires are on the latest [2013] Forbes 400 list, some question the wisdom of driving away the most experienced firefighters and police officers.”

A picture is worth a thousand words —I gave just a mere few— and public safety folks are not? How can you toy with the value of a demographic whose courageous men and women know they may not return home at the end of the tour of duty? What is left for surviving loved ones of those slain in the line of duty? How do they continue on without sustenance? Is it a matter of politicians not grasping the full scope or even the remotest sense of public safety practices? If admitted, then get in a cruiser and experience the police culture. Who will stand up to the monsters and their mayhem? Who will run toward gunfire at those handsome-looking malls held hostage by an active shooter or two or three? With a severely depleted fire department, who will advance toward flames licking homes like a serpent’s tongue waiting for you to get closer? Saving lives is always the objective, right?

Opulent homes and massive mansions dotting the Palm Beach landscape equates to wealth which translates to a vigorous tax base. So where is the money going? How did postcard-perfect Palm Beach wind up in a deficit reaching internal anarchy and employer/employee acrimony? “For the love of money is the root of all evil”?

Here is a contextual argument from Dr. Charles H. Webb: “There is no nice way to arrest a potentially dangerous, combative suspect. The police are our bodyguards; our hired fists, batons and guns. We pay them to do the dirty work of protecting us. The work we’re too afraid, too unskilled, or too civilized to do ourselves. We expect them to keep the bad guys out of our businesses, out of our cars, out of our houses, and out of our faces. We just don’t want to see how it’s done.”

As our friends at The Rural Badge put it: “If you’ve ever tried to hang on to a cat that wants down, you’ll know there’s no pretty way to take custody of a human who wants to fight. And the cat only weighs twelve pounds.”

Why did you just skim a few excerpts describing in a nutshell what police work is like? Because you certainly know better, unlike some local elected officials who may find cops dispensable items on their line-item fiscal sheets, especially the critical nest-egg part we know as pensions waiting at the end of the yellow brick road. If a cop makes it that far without being injured, maimed or even murdered in the line of duty, why shouldn’t they be granted a decent account so as to enjoy life away from the rat race Dr. Webb eloquently described above?

I wonder what the costs were for the Town of Palm Beach to replace those among the exodus. Recruiting police/fire applicants, hiring processes, equipping new cops/firefighters, training inexperienced rookies, and retaining them (pensions, anyone?) certainly comes with a cost, exponentially, given the number of cops and firefighters who left Palm Beach in droves.

Speaking as a Fraternal Order of Police arbiter who was involved in the failed pension negotiations involving Town of Palm Beach officials, Joe Paulo framed it this way: “Did anyone look at that before they made their decision?” I wonder if he raised that question when it mattered. Brothers and sisters in law enforcement in my region, as well as my own experience having been a cop with a constantly churning political climate, have seen police chiefs go to bat and get turned away. Conversely, some police executives seem to meld into the political irons which dismiss any advances of law enforcement.

Steadily, my police colleagues used the “lateral” option in police culture; they had enough of the political machinations and moved on to other pastures, much like the former Palm Beach cops and firefighters. Many happy endings resulted. I am glad my cop buddies made decisions for themselves, not having their family’s destiny in the hands of elected people who will likely be gone come the next election round.

Not sure of the sentiments surrounding police functions in your neck of the woods? Simply attend a city or county commission meeting to gauge the climate.

Incidentally, the Palm Beach Police Department is currently seeking police officers at a starting salary of $56,535.

I recommend reading Ms. Dargan’s expose covering the entire fiasco, to include voices who elaborate on some of the unseemly dirty laundry in Palm Beach a few years ago. It happens in varied jurisdictions of different sizes governed by a potpourri of personalities, but to what degree are politics more of a hindrance than a helping hand in public safety constructs?

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Stephen Owsinski

Stephen Owsinski is an OpsLens Content Manager and Contributor. Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a researcher and writer. Follow Stephen on Twitter @uniformblue.

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