NEW YORK (Reuters) - Even before the July 6 police shooting in St. Paul, Minnesota of a black man during a traffic stop, the city’s police union said there was difficulty with recruitment and retention of officers.
One day after the shooting, a black man ambushed and killed five Dallas policemen in a racially motivated attack aimed at white officers. Then last Sunday, a similarly-motivated gunman shot dead three officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Now, the St. Paul union will be discussing higher compensation in this year’s contract negotiations, in part because of the heightened climate of risk and nationwide spotlight on the profession.
“If you want a very intelligent professional, a capable professional in that uniform, you’re going to have to pay competitive wages because our job has become so less desirable for candidates,” said David Titus, president of the Saint Paul Police Federation.
A Reuters analysis found that nearly half of the unions in about 30 of the largest municipalities in the United States have expired contracts or contracts expiring in the next year. Out of 13 unions reached, three were negotiating.
The attacks added to the anguish and fear felt across America over a series of police shootings of mostly black men in the past two years that have led to street protests, racial tension and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Other police unions, in St. Louis, Missouri; Minneapolis, Minnesota and New York - and the International Union of Police Associations umbrella group - cited declining recruitment and the shootings as reasons they might seek higher overall compensation.
Some police departments such as New York, the largest in the United States with 34,581 employees as of 2014, and St. Paul, disputed the assertion that recruitment was an issue.
Before this month’s attacks on officers, NYPD spokesman Stephen Davis said the department was completing an increase in the base force by 1,300 and cited a waiting list to enter the police academy. St. Paul, the 64th largest municipality in the country, saw its officer force rise to 627 in 2014 from 542 in 2000, a 15.7 percent increase, Federal Bureau of Investigation data showed.
Police unions in San Antonio, Texas; Nashville, Tennessee and Las Vegas, Nevada, said the increased danger for officers would not be a main negotiating point in their contract talks.
In the week following the Dallas shootings, Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, said the union would not use increased levels of danger as a “bargaining position.”
A day after the Baton Rouge ambush, however, Kroll said that the shootings would indeed have an impact on talks.
Kevin Boyle, general counsel for the International Union of Police Associations, said officers need to be paid adequately.
“How do you put a price on the fact that an officer might not come home at the end of the day?” said Boyle.
Some police officers are barely paid minimum wage.
According to 2015 Bureau of Labor Statistics data, police and sheriff’s patrol officers in the bottom tenth percentile in Mississippi earned $9.89 per hour (meaning 10 percent of employees earned $9.89 or less per hour). By comparison, in California the bottom tenth percentile earned $28.53 per hour.
“These officers risk their lives for $40,000 a year. $40,000 a year,” lamented Dallas Police Chief David Brown in a CNN interview on July 10. “And this is not sustainable, not to support these people.”
Municipal budgets typically spend 50 percent on public safety and police departments alone account for 30-35 percent of that figure, said Darrel Stephens, the former police chief of Charlotte, North Carolina, who is executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.
To increase safety, Baton Rouge police have doubled up on patrols since Sunday, instead of one officer riding alone in a police car, a police spokesman said.
“I don’t think these steps so far will have a tremendous impact on the budget unless the doubling up is being done on an overtime basis,” Stephens said.
President Barack Obama, in an open letter to law enforcement dated July 18, said he recognized the courage and service of police officers and touched on what they needed in return.
“We should give you the resources you need to do your job, including our full-throated support,” Obama wrote. “We must give you the tools you need to build and strengthen the bonds of trust with those you serve, and our best efforts to address the underlying challenges that contribute to crime and unrest.”
The New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association has been calling for increased wages in negotiations since its previous contract expired in 2012. A spokesman said the shootings of officers “provide a more compelling case to properly compensate the employees.”
A 1 percent wage increase for members, in line with the pattern other uniformed groups with non-expired contracts receive, would cost New York City about $38 million on top of the $2.87 billion budgeted for uniformed police salaries, said Freddi Goldstein, a spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The NYPD’s fiscal 2017 budget of $5.15 billion is down from the $5.52 billion in fiscal 2016. The figures do not include money from federal and state authorities.
The wage demands of unions contrast with calls by Black Lives Matter for less funding of police departments, which activists and other law enforcement observers said have become increasingly militarized.
If compensation for police officers were increased, training and education and community policing would most likely be the first items to be cut, said Thomas Wieczorek, director at the Center for Public Safety Management.
“When you begin cutting back you’re increasing the risk both to the officer and the population,” he said. “You may save a dollar today only to spend it on liability in the future.”
Reporting by Stephanie Kelly in New York, additional reporting by Edward Krudy in New York and Andy Sullivan in Baton Rouge; Editing by Daniel Bases and Grant McCool