Cops As Robbers


Over at NRO, Daniel Foster tackles the growing influence of police and firefighter unions, and the petulant fearmongering they're employing when political leaders threaten layoffs or cuts to cushy overtime pay and fat pensions. Excerpt:

The public/private disparity is especially stark when one focuses on public-safety compensation in places such as Oakland; police and firemen have accounted for about 75 percent of expenditures from the city's general fund over the last five years. Average total compensation for an officer in Oakland — a city in which the median family earns $47,000 — is $162,000 per year.

As with most public-sector workers, a major — and opaque — piece of emergency-services compensation comes in the form of lifelong pensions.

"Public-safety workers tend to receive the most generous public-employee pensions," says Josh Barro, a Manhattan Institute fellow and expert on state and local finance. "They are based on a significantly shorter career — it is not atypical to see police and fire pensions based on 20 years of service — and they also tend to be more generous as a percentage of salary."

Other laws make the payouts even more generous. In New York, for instance, a "presumptive disability" law makes it easy for firemen to secure lifetime, tax-free pensions at three-quarters pay; when examining a fireman for the purpose of determining whether he has a work-related disability, a doctor is required to start with the assumption that certain illnesses are job-related even if there is no evidence that they are. A fireman from a Bronx ladder company who develops a lung disorder will qualify for disability retirement even if it's unclear whether he developed his impairment from smoke inhalation on the job, or from his two-pack-a-day cigarette habit.

The "presumptive disability" bonanza is sometimes exacerbated by abuse. In July, the New York Post told the story of John C. McLaughlin, a 55-year-old former FDNY lieutenant who retired in 2001 with an $86,000-a-year disability pension, after it was determined that he was an asthmatic with diminished lung capacity. This despite the fact that McLaughlin is an accomplished triathlete who regularly competes in long-distance races.

McLaughlin is hardly alone. An astonishing 80 percent of 2010 FDNY retirees have qualified for disability benefits.

Regular readers of this site are well-versed in stories about how difficult police unions have made it to fire police officers for misconduct (and even then, to prevent them from merely taking a job in a different department) even when they commit actual crimes, never mind for mere incompetence. The rogue cop put on "paid leave" is so common it's become cliche. But here's a particularly apt recent example from Reading, Pennsylvania, courtesy of the Injustice Everywhere site.

The city policeman who accidentally shot and killed fellow Officer Michael H. Wise II during a shootout six years ago is still being paid about $100,000 per year in salary and benefits by the city of Reading—even though he has been suspended since the shooting.

James A. Palange shot and killed Wise on June 4, 2004, when he mistook the plain-clothed Wise for a criminal as he pulled up to a gunbattle on Schuylkill Avenue that pitted Wise and two other officers against a man hiding behind a car, investigators said.

Six years later, Palange is still being paid $61,911 in salary plus benefits, medical insurance and pension even though he has not worked a day for the city since the shooting.

But it's not because he cannot work or does not want to.

For the past three years he has been working as one of four full-time police officers in Mohnton. He was hired there in June 2007 and is paid $23.93 an hour…

Reading police Chief William M. Heim said it was a personnel matter and issued a written statement only after consulting with city attorneys and other officials.

"The issue with Officer Palange is an open personnel matter among the city, the officer and the Fraternal Order of Police," Heim wrote.

He wrote that the issue is complicated by the union contract and civil and criminal cases that followed the shooting.

"The city and the FOP are still making efforts to settle this matter, even as discussions about an arbitration hearing continue," he wrote.

I don't know the story behind Wise's shooting. It's possible that he's a great cop who made a mistake and deserves to have his job back. But paying him $100K/year in salary and benefits for six years while he works as a full-time cop in another jurisdiction is a curious sort of reprimand. Reading, incidentally, ran an $11 million deficit last year, and the city has been in the red since 2007.