The Myth of Exorbitance in the San Diego Police Department

In San Diego and elsewhere across the country, public employees are the bane of conservatives’ existence, including, as we found out, police and fire services.

City Beat’s Kelly Davis has a great story up about the Police Officer’s Association and their efforts at their own pension reform.  The union, it turns out, came up with a pension plan that would have reduced the amount paid to their members out of their pension fund upon retirement, increased some officers’ take home pay, made the San Diego Police Department more competitive salary wise with departments across the state, and saved the City of San Diego $3 million over the next two years.

The plan was rejected almost entirely out of hand.  Why?  Purely due to politics.  Mayor Jerry Sanders didn’t want to do any major contract negotiations, leaving that responsibility to whoever is elected as San Diego’s next mayor—either Carl DeMaio or Bob Filner.

The problem is, as Davis’ story points out, that the SDPD is hemorrhaging officers left and right, and is unable to replace them.  Since 2008, 708 officers have left the SDPD for better paying jobs elsewhere, either with other police agencies or in the private sector.  In the meantime, the department has only been able to replace 576 of them.  San Diego is at the bottom of the pay scale among the major police departments in California.  And each time the department has to train a new officer, it costs $100,000 in addition to the officer’s salary.

The SDPD is having a major retention problem.  And when their own union tried to do something to alleviate the problem, they were rebuffed because it didn’t fit the political narrative of the day:  That unions are bad; unions are always bad; unions are greedy and are only out for themselves and their members, never mind what’s good for the city at large.  Unions make city services too expensive.  The Carl DeMaio crowd’s rhetoric is that unions need to be decimated in order for the city to even be able to function.

Public employee unions are the villains in this narrative, no matter how much of their salaries they’ve given back in the recent past to cooperate with city officials to solve the great fiscal crisis San Diego is just climbing out of.  It doesn’t matter how many benefits they’ve given up, or how valuable the services are that their members provide, and regardless of the logical, reasonable, workable proposals they come up with to solve current crises.  Unions are the problem, and anything that goes against that message must be soundly rejected because the unions must not be allowed to look reasonable.

Look, I’m not a union guy.  I’m supportive of the unions, but I’ll be the first to call them out when I think their behavior is detrimental to the public good and their members.  (By the way, City Beat’s right when they say the teachers’ union has to relent, and it appears that they’re going to do just that.)  But in just about every case over the last several years, that has been the complete opposite of the truth, and Carl DeMaio knows it.  He just doesn’t want you to know it.

In my story Wednesday I took a look at fire fighter salaries in San Diego.  You’d be surprised at just how easy it was to find.  A comment by the OB Rag’s Jack Hamlin inspired me to look into the salaries that SDPD officers earn.  Because if you listen to the right wing rhetoric, all city employees are dramatically overpaid, including police officers.  So according to the FY-2011 budget, the latest available, under the category “Personnel Expenses,” here is a sampling of what officers in the San Diego Police Department earn (the number in parentheses indicates the number of individuals performing those jobs):

  • Police Officer 1 (125):  $49,254 to 59,467
  • Police Officer 2 (1,149.25):  $62,837 to $75,941
  • Police Officer 3 (7):  $65,998 to $79,747
  • Police Sergeant (292, down from 312):  $76,274 to $92,206
  • Police Lieutenant (50.25):  $97,594 to $116,813
  • Police Captain (14):  $117,645 to $140,899
  • Police Detective (343.5):  $65,998 to $79,747

Chief Bill Landsdowne apparently currently earns a salary of $172,928, and of course there’s only one of him.

(Side note:  I wasted a bunch of time, thinking I could do a comparison on my own of the salaries offered by some of the major PD’s in California, but apparently the SDPD is the only department that puts their annual budget online, separate from the rest of the city operations.  So kudos to them for the transparency.)

Just for giggles, here’s a look at some of the salaries civilian employees of the SDPD make:

  • Clerical Assistant 2 (9.75)  $29,971 to $36,067
  • Dispatcher 2 (72 of them; we lost 7):  $37,440 to $45,178
  • Police Records Data Specialist (8, two fewer than a year ago):  $32,074 to $38,834
  • Public Information Clerk (1):  $31,491
  • Information Systems Analyst 2 (9):  $54,059 to $65,333

Nobody is getting rich working for the San Diego Police Department.  Some of the higher ups are paid fairly well, but with higher responsibility comes higher pay.

San Diego, with a population of 1.3 million people, is the 8th largest city in the country.  Between all of the sworn officers and civilian personnel, the SDPD employs 2,538 of those people, unless I’m misinterpreting the numbers they provide in their budget.

Bottom line:  We’ve got a faction of political leaders in this city that are telling us, in effect, that all government spending is bad.  Unless it’s spent on the military, of course.  They would have everyone believe that anyone working in the public sector is a leech getting fat and doing nothing of value on the public’s dime.  In the ideal world of people like Carl DeMaio and Lorie Zapf, there would be no public sector, as every public service would be contracted out to the lowest bidder.

The thing is, we tend to get what we pay for.  And personally speaking, having strong, competent, well run and adequately funded police and fire departments are incredibly important for a city as big as San Diego—we may like to pretend we’re a small town, but we’re anything but.  And when you consider that San Diego lifeguards, who stand watch over one of our most valuable economic engines—the beaches–their role takes on even more significance.

San Diegans typically demand a high level of service from those who get paid out of the taxpayers’ coffers.  But they also don’t like the idea of having to pay for those services, and that applies to all public services and not just the police and fire departments.  We must hold our workers and public officials accountable for the jobs they do, but what we have to decide on is what we value more:  A high quality work product, or paying as little as absolutely possible for the services we benefit from.  And if paying as little as possible is the most important factor, then maybe we should contract everything out to the lowest bidder (which would include current city departments).

Just don’t be surprised if the work product turns out to be somewhat less than our normally high standards.  And don’t complain when the police don’t respond to your 911 call

Update:  The Washington Post’s  Greg Sargent has a piece up talking about Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney.  In a response to a statement made by President Obama, Romney said:

Romney said of Obama, “he wants another stimulus, he wants to hire more government workers. He says we need more fireman, more policeman, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”

(emphasis added by Sargent, quoted from CNN)

Sargent also points out the Republican message that public sector employees “are parasites who are destroying the economic condition of ordinary Americans.”

Mitt Romney, the de-facto leader of the Republican Party, says that not only do we not need more police and firefighters, but we don’t need any more teachers.  We have no use for ’em.  They’re part of the public sector problem, and we can easily do away with them.  This fits in line with Romney’s way of thinking that class sizes are not significant factors in a students’ ability to perform in the classroom.

Other than to highlight that saying students learn better with larger class sizes is patently ridiculous on its face, and that every credible stuy done on the matter has determined that it’s patently false, we’ll leave Romney’s stance on education alone for now.

President Obama met with the press today and said that the private sector is doing quite well.  He’s right.  WaPo’s Ezra Klein lays out that case quite nicely here.  But what isn’t doing fine, Obama said, and the reason our economy is still lagging, is because the public sector is still in serious trouble.  Since Obama took office, the public sector has lost 600,000 jobs.  That includes police, fire fighters, teachers…

The private sector, on the other hand, has added a net 780,000 jobs since February 2009.  The private sector is humming along, but the economy is lagging because the public sector is in trouble.  Obama wants to help state, county, and municipal governments to restore some of those 600,000 jobs that have been lost.  Mitt Romney wants to see those people remain unemployed.  Or he wants to see all of those services privatized.  It’s hard to tell which, since Romney won’t actually tell us where he stands on anything, and anytime he does hint at it, he flip flops on it by the next day.

But it’s a philosophical divide; one with the Mitt Romneys and Carl DeMaios of the world saying “eradicate the public sector,” and the Barack Obamas, Nancy Pelosis, and Bob Filners of the world saying that the public sector plays an important role in our overall economic health.  There’s plenty of evidence out there (presented here in this update, even) to tell us who’s right and who’s wrong.


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