Salaries are on the rise in police departments across the US, despite protests and calls to defund the police

New york police officers
NYPD officers stand guard on April 4, 2021 in New York City.

  • The 2020 median salary for a police officer in the US was $67,290 – the median for all jobs was $48,769.
  • Despite ongoing calls to defund police departments, officer salaries are only getting higher.
  • Police forces are growing, too, with incentives to join such tuition reimbursement and signing bonuses.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Police work can be one of the best-paid professions in the United States.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2020 median salary for a police officer was US$67,290 – more than one-third higher than the national median of $48,769 for all occupations. Many officers probably earn much more, because the bureau’s analysis is based on hourly wages for a typical work year of 2,080 hours and does not include overtime – one of the factors that can drive an officer’s yearly income even higher.

Although there is a great deal of variation across the nation’s roughly 18,000 police departments, the agency also reports that salaries for police have largely climbed in the past five years – from an 8.8% increase in Mississippi, the state that overall pays its police the least, to a 21% increase in Hawaii, one of the best-paying states.

While efforts to control police budgets have succeeded in Austin, Denver, and Oakland, among others, the Biden administration recently announced that COVID-19 relief funds can be used to hire police officers to combat the rise in gun violence.

As a former police officer who studies policing in America, I think it is unlikely that police salaries can go anywhere but up.

Read more: 3 IT professionals who didn’t get a college degree and are now making 6 figures reveal how to succeed in their field

Police salaries are inching up

Just look at the trends across the US.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics published the mean salaries for police officers in all states plus the District of Columbia for the year 2018.

Somewhat predictably due to cost of living, California topped the list at $101,380, followed by Alaska at $88,030, where the cost of living also drives salaries higher. New Jersey, Washington state, and Hawaii round out the top five.

All of the 10 departments with the lowest-paid officers are located in the South, where Mississippi police officers earn slightly more than one-third of their California counterparts.

Large cities clearly offer higher wages to their police officers, as do some cities surrounding large metropolitan areas. The Los Angeles Police Department currently advertises a starting salary of $70,804 a year. That’s up from the 2015 starting annual salary of $59,717 – an 18.5% increase over just six years.

Starting salary for police officers in Baltimore is $55,117, with a seasoned officer earning $95,325, base salary alone. Seattle officers earn $83,600 once they’ve completed their basic academy training and top out at $109,512 after 54 months, not including overtime. Seattle even agreed to pay its officers an extra 2% for wearing body cameras.

Larger, better-paying police departments attract officers from smaller departments by offering more pay and better training for experienced officers. This often leaves a void that small agencies struggle to fill with qualified candidates.

There are three main drivers of police take-home pay: overtime, education, and competition.

1. Overtime

In his recent trial for the murder of George Floyd, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was represented by an attorney paid for by his union, the Minneapolis Police Federation. This benefit is only a small part of the union’s 128-page labor agreement with the city, which details salaries, vacation, sick leave, medical insurance, grievance procedures and, in particular, overtime pay.

Reportedly, Derek Chauvin’s 2018 salary was $90,612, more than twice the average Minneapolis per capita income of $38,808 in 2019. But it’s overtime rather than base salaries that drives up officers’ total compensation.

Across the country, police officers typically receive “time and a half” for every hour worked beyond the standard 40-hour week, meaning a pay rate that combines their regular hourly rate plus an additional 50%.

Most union agreements also stipulate higher pay for other work deemed “overtime,” such as off-duty court appearances. They also stipulate other after-hours pay boosts, such as a minimum of four hours’ pay for officers called back to duty for any reason.

In practice, these extra pay arrangements have a huge effect on driving up the size of police budgets. A few examples:

  • In Los Angeles, where the second-largest police force in the US boasts salaries of $83,144 after two years of employment plus an annual 1.5% cost-of-living increase, the union recently negotiated $245 million in overtime pay for its officers.
  • Boston’s complex agreement with its police department results in many opportunities for overtime as well as extra payment for special assignments.

City governments typically budget for some police officer overtime, since that extra income does not count toward an officer’s eventual retirement pay and reduces the need to hire additional employees. However, unanticipated events such as national disasters, public demonstrations, and political rallies all result in overtime pay for cops that cities must pay whether or not they planned for it:

2. Education

Few local law enforcement agencies require a four-year college degree, but most offer educational incentives that range from a 2% annual salary increase for earning an associate’s degree to 10% for a bachelor’s degree.

For example, since 1970 in Massachusetts, police receive pay incentives of up to 25% over and above their regular salary for a master’s or law degree. The Chicago Police Department, among others, provides tuition reimbursement for college courses, as well as additional incentive pay once a degree is completed.

Such incentives may be a good investment. Research indicates that police officers with college degrees are less likely to use lethal force and are subjects of fewer citizen complaints. Since fewer complaints mean fewer claims to pay and lawsuits to defend, this can ultimately save cities money.

3. Recruitment

More police officers are leaving the profession before retirement age, according to a 2019 study by the Police Executive Research Forum. The group has also found that the number of applicants for police jobs has steadily declined over the past 10 years. So departments trying to attract new recruits often go beyond tempting salaries by offering incentives like assistance with relocation, housing and childcare, education pay, college tuition reimbursement, health club memberships, and employee signing bonuses.

At the New York Police Department, the nation’s largest force, the starting salary is a relatively modest $42,000 a year. But the department highlights on its website that starting benefits include “holiday pay, longevity pay, uniform allowance, night differential, and overtime,” which together with salary can boost annual compensation to more than $100,000.

Even smaller departments are coming up with incentives to try and remain competitive with larger agencies that can offer higher salaries, more overtime and more attractive benefits. The police department of Bellmead, Texas, a city of around 10,500 about two hours north of Austin, has begun offering experienced officers a $5,000 bonus for signing on to the force.

Another trend to watch: Not only are police salaries rising, but the size of police forces also continues to grow. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a 5% growth in police jobs from 2019 to 2029, from 813,500 to an estimated 854,200, which is faster on average than other occupations.

Laurie Woods, senior lecturer in sociology, Vanderbilt University

The Conversation
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How America’s state police got military weapons

  • To date, the US has spent over $15.4 billion on the militarization of police.
  • All of these weapons, vehicles, and equipment are acquired by the police through a military program called 1033.
  • There are four major moments in history that enabled the creation of the 1033 Program: The Safe Streets Act of 1968, The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, The National Defense Authorization Act of 1990, and The Patriot Act of 2000.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: After the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, people protested in at least 140 cities across the nation. Here in Indiana, a protestor lost an eye from a tear gas container hitting him in the face.

In North Carolina, protesters were trapped by a cloud of tear gas on both ends of a street. In Kentucky, an officer attacked a newscaster and camera crew with pepper bullets.

And here in Detroit, police backed by armored vehicles marched down the streets. To date, the US has spent over $15 billion on the militarization of police.

All of these weapons, vehicles, and equipment are acquired by the police through a military program called 1033.

It’s like eBay for cops with leftover war equipment, except everything is free and you only pay for shipping and handling. Up until 2017, police couldn’t be in the program unless they used equipment within a year of receiving it.

So how did local police acquire all of these military weapons? And why do they even need them? To answer this question, we’re going to examine four moments in history.

Clip: From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time.

Narrator: In the wake of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress signed the Safe Streets Act into law in June of 1968.

Through that act, in an effort to crack down on organized crime and gun violence, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration was created.

LEAA guaranteed the distribution of federal money to fight organized crime. This funded what we know as SWAT, and it ensured SWAT received searchlights, emergency radios, bullhorns, nightsticks, body armor, face shields, and special weapons like M79 grenade launchers.

Prior to 1968, SWAT teams were used sparingly, only in volatile, high-risk situations like bank robberies or hostage situations. SWAT’s first test as a militarized front came when the LAPD used a tank on loan from the California National Guard on the Southern California Black Panther Party.

Clip: The intermittent warfare between the Black Panthers and police erupted today in Los Angeles. There, a group of them barricaded themselves in their headquarters and fought police with automatic weapons and hand grenades.

Narrator: The US Department of State granted the LAPD authorization to use tear gas and sniper rifles. With national coverage, SWAT grew in popularity across the US and with other local law enforcement, creating a demand for military equipment.

LEAA’s budget was a total of $7.5 billion, with a good portion going towards the militarization of US local law-enforcement agencies. After nearly a decade of extremely high budgets and spending, LEAA began to receive criticism because it had not shown success in decreasing crime rates.

On April 15, 1982, LEAA was abolished when Congress failed to fund it. But by that time, SWAT teams and their militaristic approach had already become the norm.

In 1986, Ronald Reagan’s Anti-Drug Abuse Act expanded the use of no-knock or quick-knock warrants and assistance of the Air Force, Navy, and Marines in drug-related searches and seizures.

It allowed for members of SWAT to arrive at suspected locations of criminal activities and enter without knocking or announcing themselves, pointing guns at anyone inside.

They often used diversionary tactics like flash grenades, rendering their victims deaf and blind. In some cases, individuals believe they’re experiencing a home invasion, to which they grab a gun. Like Jose Guerena, a former US Marine who was suspected of selling marijuana. What you’re about to see and hear might upset you. He pulled a gun because he believed his home was being invaded, and the police shot him 60 times in seven seconds. No drugs were found.

In the early 1980s, there was on average about 3,000 recorded SWAT incidents per year. By the mid 1990s, that number grew to about 45,000 SWAT incidents per year. 75.9% were drug raids.

Of those raids, SWAT officers fired 342 times. They injured 61 and killed 139 citizens.

In 1989, George H. W. Bush signed the National Defense Authorization Act.

This act allowed for surplus DOD equipment from the Cold War to be transferred to US law enforcement. Sections 1207 and 1208 allowed for the following: “the procurement of services and leasing of equipment” and the transfer to federal and state agencies personal property, “including small arms and ammunition.”

And from those two sections, eight years later, the 1033 program was born. Under Bill Clinton’s administration, the use of military surplus trade continued with the introduction of the Law Enforcement Support Office, LESO, which enacted US code title 10, section 2576a, also known as the 1033 program.

Much like National Defense Authorization Act 1208, the 1033 program expanded into other areas, including counterterrorism. This line states that surplus military equipment can be used for counter-drugs and counterterrorism efforts. This line states that surplus military equipment is free of charge minus shipping and handling.

Over $7.4 billion worth of property has been transferred since the program’s inception. More than 8,000 law-enforcement agencies have enrolled. Items shipped include boots, radios, shields, M16 assault rifles, tanks, and silencers.

For every one qualified officer, one M1911 pistol, M16 rifle, or M14 rifle is allocated. For every three officers, a department can get a Humvee, and every law-enforcement agency has the ability if they apply to receive one MRAP.

And then, three days after 9/11, George W. Bush signed the Patriot Act.

It created a gray zone where law-enforcement agencies were able to perform more searches and seizures with access to delayed warrants, wiretaps, email, and web search surveillance, all in the name of fighting terrorism. But in reality, the liberties given to police were often used in drug-related cases. Only 1% of sneak and peek searches in 2010 were terrorism related. 76% were drug related.

And the United States’ international actions also impacted law enforcement at home. As a result of an increase and then decrease of US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan over the years, there’s been more military surplus equipment available to law enforcement, creating a spike in tactical items distributed by the 1033 program.

The Department of Defense does not provide training for law-enforcement agencies that receive military weapons. Instead, it’s left to recipients to certify their own training each year. Because there is no federal mandate that police agencies report on SWAT operations, there’s no real way to tell or quantify the effect of SWAT-related incidents.

In an effort to access the program’s productivity and safety protocols, the Government Accountability Office created a fake federal agency. After acquiring more than 100 items worth over $1.2 million, the office recommended a process to implement fraud prevention in addition to a website that can track the equipment and the agencies it was sent to.

Prior to the investigation, there was very little record keeping and tracking of weapons after transfer. There were several instances where the agencies did not report lost weapons or disposal of excess equipment.

Clip: And San Mateo and Napa counties were not the only departments in the nation to have lost equipment. About 200, in fact, have military equipment missing at this hour, and that includes, actually, some Humvees.

Narrator: 184 state and local police departments were suspended from the 1033 program. In 2014, sparked by the murder of Michael Brown, civil unrest rolled through the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. Americans watching from home were shocked to see what looked like an army descending on such a small town.

On January 16, 2015, President Barack Obama issued Executive Order 13688.

Barack Obama: You know, we’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there’s an occupying force as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them.

Narrator: The order prohibited a list of equipment from being transferred to law enforcement through the 1033 program: tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft, firearms of .50 caliber or higher, ammunition of .50 caliber or higher, grenade launchers, bayonets, camouflage uniforms. That executive order did not last long before being revoked in 2017 by President Donald Trump.

Jeff Sessions: These restrictions that had been opposed went too far. We will not put superficial concerns above public safety.

Narrator: Today, in 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, protesters are being met with militarized police armed with 1033 program war surplus. No-knock warrants still result in the deaths of innocent citizens, like 26-year-old emergency medical technician Breonna Taylor.

Tear gas is still legal for domestic use on protesters but has been banned for use in war since 1993. And studies on rubber bullets, like the ones used here, show that 3% of those injured by rubber bullets died as a result of their injuries. 15.5% suffered permanent disabilities like eye loss, and nearly 50% of those who were struck on the head or neck were killed.

In the US, law enforcement kills over 900 people a year. Compare that to Norway, where there have been only four police-related killing since 2002.

Norway credits these numbers to its face-to-face community-building approach and believes it has created more trust between citizens and their police department. And we’ve seen similar changes stateside.

In 2001, a Cincinnati police officer shot and killed 19-year-old Timothy Thomas after he resisted arrest over minor crimes. After riots and protests, in fear of more unrest, the city began to reform its police department in collaboration with the Department of Justice.

They standardized procedures, making civilian-officer interactions more transparent. They also created a training program focused on mental health.

The reforms were met with pushback from city officials and a hostile police union, but the result was a 50% decrease in use of force from 2001 to 2007.

Data shows that building trust within the community may be a better solution to saving lives than using military weapons against them.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in August 2020.

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