LAPD: Death by the Thousands Cut?

Last month, UCLA Magazine published a solid article on alumni who had shunned the typical career paths open to them to join the LAPD. They were portrayed as intelligent, articulate and disciplined. I felt safer knowing that these fellow Bruins were in local law enforcement. I was also impressed they had the open minds to undertake careers in what has typically been a blue-collar profession.

What I have not seen in print is the LAPD’s recent deep cut in starting pay, particularly for four-year college graduates.

As of January 2010, a raw recruit without a four-year degree earns $45,226 a year when they sign on with the LAPD. If they had signed on in 2009, they would have earned $56,522. That’s a cut of $11,296 a year, or 20%.

Recruits with a college degree received the same 20% pay cut, and now earn starting pay of $48,880. They previously earned $61,095. That’s a cut of $12,225, well over $1,000 a month.

To earn their old starting pay, new cops without a college degree will have to advance to step five of the seven-step pay structure for the basic patrol rank, while those with a degree have to advance to step seven. That takes about 18 months (a one-step advance comes after graduation from the academy, and usually every six months thereafter. College graduates enter the academy at step three).

Until the LAPD union contract is renegotiated in the middle of next year, that means these new cops will continue to be paid about 20% to 25% less than their colleagues with similar experience – not exactly the best way to boost morale and retain staff.

These steep cuts were made to prevent rank-and-file patrolmen from being furloughed or even laid off. From the perspective of the LAPD’s union, the Police Protective League, it makes perfect sense. Unions usually strive to protect the most senior employees. And given a rookie L.A. cop can be fired for any offense before their 18-month probationary period is up (six months in the academy and their first year as a sworn officer) they comprise the constituency least likely to raise hackles over having their pay slashed.

However, it raises some troubling questions about the direction the LAPD will take as it tries to keep its ranks above 10,000 sworn officers. And it raises even more troubling questions as to why I am writing this post, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

The LAPD pays a 7.5% differential to recruits with four-year degrees. Many police departments do so: studies have shown that college-educated cops receive fewer complaints from the community about their conduct, are involved in fewer use-of-force incidents, and make good supervisors. New LAPD chief Charlie Beck only recently earned his bachelors degree from Cal State Long Beach – no doubt because his lack of a degree was going to hamper his further rise in the department.

But the LAPD’s recently instituted pay cut is going to make it tougher for college-educated recruits to join the department. The starting pay was once generous for someone just out of school. Now it barely tops what a brand-new teacher at a local charter school earns.

It may work as a short-term fix to the city’s budget woes, but the department should not be surprised if its ever-present drain of officers to other departments begins heating up should an economic recovery take hold soon.

Which brings me to the next troubling issue: Why am I the first journalist in L.A. to write about this? I’m a healthcare writer by training and inclination, and I haven’t covered law enforcement in any form for nearly 20 years. Most of the space in this blog is devoted to slamming my colleagues for what I perceive to be their missteps or grumbling about politics. I shouldn’t be a resource of reporting on the LAPD.

Yet neither the L.A. Times or Daily News have covered this story. The Times’ David Zahniser made the briefest of mention of cuts in starting pay when the Police Protective League approved the changes in late 2009. But it appeared in his blog, and not in the newspaper. Not a single mention of this has been made in any media outlet since. Most of the coverage has been in the reduction of overtime for officers, and the elimination of some specialized units, thereby putting more police on the streets.

There may be some editors at the Times who would argue that cutting the starting salaries of police officers isn’t news. I’ll point to what happened when the New York Police Department cut its pay to raw rookies to just $25,100 a year back in 2005. The New York Times and other media outlets chimed in with extensive coverage – including interviews with new cops having trouble paying their bills – and op-eds.

Eventually, the NYPD found it couldn’t attract quality recruits, so about 18 months ago it raised the starting salary back over $41,000. It also raised the base pay after five and a half years from under $60,000 to over $76,000. It now approaches $91,000 with incentives and allowances added in. That appears to be far above what the LAPD now offers to officers with similar experience. That gap hasn’t been reported on either.

I know all about this because the New York Times has covered this issue extensively.

It wasn’t that long ago the L.A. Times and Daily News covered the LAPD with the same relentlessness. Not a day went by when there wasn’t some coverage of the department, either good or bad.

Now, its editorial staffs brutalized by deep personnel cuts – both papers have about half the editorial staffs they did a decade ago – and they let a story slip by that should not have.

I’m not bragging about covering it here. I’m embarrassed. But the Times and Daily News still have about 700 more editorial staffers than this blog. I want to read about how this may affect the LAPD’s recruitment efforts and morale in some actual depth. Pardon the pun, but not seeing it at all, in any form, will amount to a cop-out.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “LAPD: Death by the Thousands Cut?

  1. Benjamin Cole

    I like the LAPD.
    But, more cops does not mean less crime. Crime is falling in LA, probably because of higher incarceration rates. Crime is falling in Pasadena, Arcadia, any number of cities.

    Compared to the private sector, LAPD officers do well. You forget to mention the six weeks of vacation pay, the three-day workweek, and nice retirement pension after 25 years.
    Listen, I am 55 now, and I will never retire. Not enough money.

    A smaller LAPD is okay by me. Personally, I would like LAPD officers to report to small kiosks in neighborhoods, rather than going to large facilities , and then venturing out, eating up time galore.

  2. Nic

    Yep, I have actually considered applying for the LAPD, if they would have me (I’m in good shape for a 40something, but lack the “warrior attitude” that a cop on the beat might need to survive). I could keep my freelance job and add the police salary and benefits! Freelancing is so dicey I’d apply even if the starting salary was as low as $48,000+. Lose 3 days a week and gain $48,000 per year?! Sheesh, I’ll write resumes & cover letters for the departing disillusioned rookies, for that kind of salary!

    And let’s face the ugly fact that public coffers are empty. Better to cut starting pay than cut veteran pay, and it is certainly easier to cut starting pay than cut pension pay… though public pensions are the next bit that will need to be trimmed back a bit.

  3. Future Broke

    Sure we all like the idea of paying police, fire, teachers, and other public workers more money. But where is the money coming from? And the incredible retirement plans the police and fire departments get the cities will have to make even bigger cuts in the future.

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