Despite the difficulty of recruiting and maintaining officers in an atmosphere thick with cutbacks, layoffs and, in some cases, the elimination of positions within their organizations, experienced officers say policing still hasn’t lost its luster — at least for them. Most of the officers who shared their thoughts about policing in an economic downturn admitted that either their benefits have changed or they were in danger of changing, and confessed they haven’t seen raises in some time. But most officers don’t believe the stagnation of salary and benefits curbs the enthusiasm of potential recruits. In fact, some officers believe that hard times may actually increase the number of candidates applying for law enforcement jobs, rather than discourage them.
“I still see 300 plus applicants apply for one position in a city that used to never get more than a dozen applications at a time. I think that people are still viewing law enforcement as a stable job that pays enough to get by,” one officer said recently in response to a discussion on the Officer.com forums. “The money was never the deciding factor for most of us,” he adds.
Others agree. They say that in general they believe law enforcement is a relatively stable profession, with the only jobs in danger in most jurisdictions being “the low man on the totem pole.”
“The dynamics are changing a bit, but in the end there will always be a need for the police,” said one law enforcement veteran.
Almost all of the officers who spoke to LET admitted to either having personally experienced changes in benefits or said they anticipate such changes in the very near future. One Wisconsin-based LEO said, “We’ve never had to pay into our pensions before and very soon we’ll be paying in 5.8 percent.”
Local and state agencies aren’t the only ones to feel the pinch. One Federal agent told LET he’d recently considered a return to local law enforcement in order to be closer to his family, but said he abandoned the idea when he saw how much the recession had impacted the local agency’s budget. “My first department (a sheriff’s office in the Southeast) laid off all their court bailiffs and took deputies off patrol to fill court security billets,” he said.
In the past, law enforcement was considered nearly recession proof, but that’s no longer true. Whole departments have disappeared into the yawning budget chasms created by cash-strapped governments, rising prices and tiny budgets. Remaining departments have seen positions axed and benefits evaporate like rain on a hot sidewalk.
Law enforcement executives say that eroding benefits will ultimately chase good officers out of a profession that already requires employees to work under stressful, dangerous conditions and put in long hours. Supporters of better police benefits point to the deterioration of those benefits as a huge stumbling block to recruitment and retention efforts. Richmond, Ky., Police Chief Larry Brock expressed his frustration with the most recent cutbacks in his department by telling local reporters that he expected the changes to send his present staff hunting for new jobs, as well as discourage prospective hires. Among the benefits lost by Richmond’s officers were allowances for uniform maintenance, training incentives, longevity pay and take home car privileges for officers living outside the city limits.
Meanwhile, in Arizona, officers statewide were joining firefighters in speaking out against a proposed bill that would overhaul government pensions. The bill, which critics say will make it tougher to recruit and retain officers, would increase the amount government workers contribute to their pensions from 7 to 11 percent.
Other pension plans have switched from defined benefit to defined contribution models, which means instead of classic pensions funded by the government, retirement systems, contributions from employees or a combination of those resources, traditional pensions have been replaced by 401(k) type plans. Many experts say the day of the defined benefit plan is basically over, and more and more local and state governments will convert to defined contribution plans in the future.