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If you live in Fullerton or Costa Mesa, or really anywhere in Orange County, you should read this story from today’s New York Times: To Fight Crime, a Poor City Will Trade In Its Police.
This is a disturbing and tragic story, the story of both the “most dangerous city in America” and also one of its poorest. But parts of it will resonate with you. Camden, a major drug sales bazaar for its region (read the story for lurid details), is taking a path that many have proposed for Fullerton, for Costa Mesa, and beyond — saving money by breaking the police union.
The police acknowledge that they have all but ceded these streets to crime, with murders on track to break records this year. And now, in a desperate move to regain control, city officials are planning to disband the Police Department.
The reason, officials say, is that generous union contracts have made it financially impossible to keep enough officers on the street. So in November, Camden, which has already had substantial police layoffs, will begin terminating the remaining 273 officers and give control to a new county force. The move, officials say, will free up millions to hire a larger, nonunionized force of 400 officers to safeguard the city, which is also the nation’s poorest.
As the article notes, the battle over the fate of public sector unions is widespread. In this extremely Democratic city, unlike in Wisconsin and elsewhere, residents have not raised major complaints about it — largely because so many of them consider their police force ineffective and corrupt. While the police oppose the move, the city is apparently simply out of money to do anything else. Already, budget shortfalls mean that Camden’s police no longer respond to property crimes or non-injury car accidents.
Even union officials acknowledge that the contract is rich with expensive provisions. For example, officers earn an additional 4 percent for working a day shift, and an additional 10 percent for the shift starting at 9:30 p.m. They earn an additional 11 percent for working on a special tactical force or an anticrime patrol.
Salaries range from about $47,000 to $81,000 now, not including the shift differentials or additional longevity payments of 3 percent to 11 percent for any officer who has worked five years or more. Officials say they anticipate salaries for the new force will range from $47,000 to $87,000.
The article also notes that police received a 3.75% pay increase in 2009; on any given day, almost 30% of the force do not show up for work. The union has been criticized for making the cost of hiring new officers prohibitive. A member of the equivalent of the County’s Board of Supervisors also happens to be the state political director for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. He says that people need more police to give themselves “a fighting chance,” without which Camden (with a murder rate 18 times that of New York City could not shed its “most dangerous city in America” title.
On the other hand, “he did not blame the union officials who won the provisions” — which seems to set up a contradiction. The president of the equivalent of a Police union put up a stronger defense.
[He] blamed the city for creating the problems by shifting officers onto patrols, where they receive extra pay, from administrative positions. He said he was open to negotiation but believed that the city simply wanted to get rid of the contract. “They want to go back to a 1930s atmosphere where employees and officers have absolutely no rights to redress bad management and poor working conditions,” he said.
So Camden County will set up a new, nonunionized police force, which it expects will eventually become unionized.
I expect that there might be two reactions to this story of the horrors of trying to police a city with scarce and dwindling resources.
The first, I recognize, is along the lines of “this shows the problem with public employee unions.”
And yet, note the material in the story that may undermine that reaction. The extra expenses largely came at the request of the city. The police union has offered to renegotiate the more expensive parts of its deal, but was rejected in favor of breaking the union. The County expects that the new force will become unionized anyway — in part, most likely, because employees and officers need protection when they complaint about bad management and working conditions. And, unstated: are cops going to be better cops when they lack benefits like health insurance and pensions? Or are they likely to become, among other things, more corrupt?
It’s the second reaction that I’d most want to emphasize, because it’s one that I’ll bet many people did not have. Camden is a city that one could well imagine being eligible for bankruptcy. And that raises a question:
“Is Camden’s situation even remotely like those of Fullerton and Costa Mesa?”
My guess is: no, it isn’t. This article shows the real sorts of problems that might lead a community to consider the major (and dangerous) step of breaking a public employee union. Read the details of the article. We might get told that Fullerton and Costa Mesa are like Camden — but really, if we’re to be honest with ourselves, they simply aren’t. Some people want to apply Camden’s drastic solution of amputation for a problem that — by comparison, and recognizing that some true tragedies have occurred — is for the most part like an unpleasant rash.
You don’t amputate an arm or leg because of a rash.