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By June 13, 2013 Read More →

STOP scapegoating cops

Cynthia Brown

Cynthia Brown

As someone who understands the tremendous job that police officers do, it has been very difficult for me to watch the powers-that-be making people in the law enforcement profession scapegoats for our current economic problems.

Reporters and pundits at every newspaper, magazine, radio and television talk show have been relentless making the case that it’s your salary and benefits that caused the great recession that started in 2007 and imploded in 2008. The reality is that your salary and benefits have absolutely nothing to do with the current mess we are in.

A lot of people think making scapegoats of public sector workers is largely an effort of Republicans and the powerful business interests that usually back that party. I believe there is a more disturbing truth here. The whole Republican versus Democrat paradigm is starting to look like just another tool used by the powerful to victimize citizens like us who don’t make enough money to start PACs and make huge campaign contributions.

Things would be so much easier if there was one political party that took public safety and the standard of living for law enforcement professionals seriously and the other did not.

scapegoat2What we have now is more like a war with the top one or two percent of the richest households versus everybody else. In a representative democracy like we think we have in the United States, the wealthiest among us should not get to call all the shots. But that looks like the reality we are dealing with.

Forget all the party labels that proclaim Republicans are serious about the national debt and Democrats are big government spenders. Most of what we are seeing is a dog and pony show that is increasing cultural divisions so we can’t recognize our common interests. Somehow we have to find a way to see past party labels and take a look at the deeper and darker alliances that are changing the fabric of American life.

In 2010, in my home state of Massachusetts, a place that routinely votes to raise taxes to improve essential services like schools and public safety, the Democratic-controlled state House of Representatives outlawed collective bargaining over health care for the Bay State’s public sector workers. While this is not as egregious as what’s happening in Michigan, Florida and Wisconsin, remember that Massachusetts is one of the most liberal, pro-union states in the country.

The propaganda continues to circulate that it’s your pay and benefits, particularly your pensions, which have caused the ongoing recession, high rates of unemployment and the massive federal deficit. But public sector pay and benefits have little to do with the ongoing problems of our economy. Experts agree that the economic downturn caused by the recession resulted in the steepest decline in state and local tax receipts on record and the out of control increase in health care expenditures.

Also to blame are the cities, counties and states that had legal and moral obligations to fund their employees’ pension funds and either refused or neglected to do so.

Another problem we have is politicians using budget numbers to distort the truth about state and local finances in order to advance a political agenda that has the ultimate goal of restricting and then eliminating your collective bargaining rights as well as all defined benefit pension programs.

I  do not believe this is happening because people have little respect or appreciation for what cops do and just want to take advantage of you. I think it is occurring because large financial entities  want to get their hands on your pension funds and private companies want to control your jobs and the services you provide. This move to privatization, where companies take over work historically done by public sector workers employed by government agencies is happening all over the world.

Just look at education and charter schools, public safety, corrections – even the military which I always assumed would be the one sacred cow. One third of the people immersed in the wars in  Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade were not enlisted members of our military, but employees of  private companies who do not sit down at a table and negotiate a contract with their employees.

Here are a few facts you may find useful to bring to the attention of city officials, the media, people in the community, and others claiming that your salaries and pensions are at the root of our fiscal woes.

While most cities, counties and states have budget shortfalls, it is not because of your pensions. Most of these scare tactics involve dire forecasts of widespread bond defaults and bankruptcies. But the unbiased experts all say there is no indication that this is going to happen. Since 2008, when the economy really tanked, less than 20 out of the total of 5,000 municipal bonds out there defaulted. That’s less than one percent.

Moreover, not all pension funds are poorly funded. Not by a long shot. Research conducted by the Pew Center on the States shows that unfunded pensions are a problem only in some of the states. Others have been responsibly funded and are stable.

It is crucial to remember that there was a huge decline in the primary sources of money for state and local governments, including income taxes which go to state coffers, sales taxes which also go to the state, and local property taxes which fund local governments.

It is local property taxes that pay your salary and benefits. In one year, between 2008 and 2009, the average income of people in the U.S. dropped 15 percent. Real estate taxes, which pay for the bulk of your salary and benefits, were down by a whopping 20 percent in 2009 compared to 2002. This is a catastrophic situation by anyone’s calculations and the reason that people refer to this period of time as the biggest national economic disaster since the Great Depression.

There is something else you may find surprising. State and local debt is not the problem. If your city has debt it means they are investing in infrastructure. That means jobs. Overall, the amount of state and local government debt has been pretty much stable since 1979, which is no doubt the reason that state and local bonds remain a good investment.

If you have heard directly or indirectly that if you don’t agree to enormous givebacks, your greed will inflict harm on your city by causing the bond rating to drop, do not believe it. It is just not true.   Moody’s and Standard & Poor use totally different criteria to judge the fiscal health of a city and whether an investment in that city will pay off. They check whether the economy is diversified so if one industry hits hard times, the city will have other sectors to keep it going. They look to see how well the city is managed financially and whether investments have performed well.

Ironically, cities where teachers and police officers are well-compensated, and there is investment in other parts of the public sector like parks, transportation, and public works, the bond ratings are higher because those communities are more desirable places to live and investors find them a good place to put their money.

But these lies are not going away and the people spreading them are well financed and organized. So there is quite a battle ahead for all of us. The good news is that the truth is on your side,  but you must fight to get your message out.

Your work is challenging on levels that people outside the profession have a hard time understanding. But police officers are fighters by nature, and they know when they are being lied to. This battle is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. And like the Greek philosopher Persius said, “He conquers who endures.”

American Police Beat has done and will continue to do everything we can to help and support you. You have dedicated yourselves to the world’s most noble profession, and you are the ones who bring justice to those who seek to harm us. You are the lynchpin of our great country and democracy. The right to be safe is our first and foremost civil right. Without public safety, which is what you provide, we really don’t have anything else. You perform the toughest and most important job in the world. Don’t ever forget that.

Posted by Cynthia Brown. Besides being the publisher of American Police Beat (, Cynthia Brown is the author of “Brave Hearts: Extraordinary Stories of Pride, Pain and Courage,” a book that profiles 15 veteran NYPD officers. The book can be ordered from  HYPERLINK or by calling 1-800-270-5317. Mention the word “cops” for free shipping. Brown also runs the annual Police Union Leadership Seminar and the Law Enforcement Associations Leadership Seminar at the Harvard Law School. This essay first appeared in FRONTLINE, the official publication of the NYC Sergeant’s Benevolent Association.

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