"Backing the Blue" does not require "Over-generous Green" for Police Chiefs
Exorbitant Police Chiefs’ pay is overburdening Stony Point and Rockland County taxpayers
By Mike Diederich, Jr.
A “kleptocracy” is the government-sponsored theft of taxpayers’ dollars. Governmental officials and civil servants gain taxpayers’ trust and then fleece them. It’s racketeering or a look-alike. Kleptocracy is a well-known and world-wide phenomenon. It supports Vladimir Putin in Russia, Xi Jinping in China, and the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban with almost no shots fired. In the United States, kleptocracy is seen in many forms, from the movie screen constable taking an apple from a city street grocer, to corporate welfare such as the taxpayer bailout of billionaires during the 2009 financial crisis. The offshore tax haven used by kleptocrats is described in the recent “Pandora Papers” reporting by The Guardian. One form of kleptocracy talked about locally involves accusations that some organized religious groups grab taxpayer dollars through abuse of social welfare benefits. The author focused on that when he ran for District Attorney in 2019. Because of their insularity and distinctiveness, it is easy to criticize an insular religious sect whether the criticism is based upon fact, fiction or anecdote. The religious sect has powerful defenders. And so too does another group in our county have powerful defenders—our local police. The men and women who put on a badge to keep us safe, and who do a great job. They deserve just compensation for their difficult and sometimes dangerous work. But there are limits. Police Chiefs’ Kleptocracy This paper focuses on police management, and especially police chiefs, as engaging in a form of kleptocracy. It is a problem particularly difficult to address because we love the beneficiaries of the kleptocracy. They are our friends and neighbors. They are the people we rely on to protect us against crime. They are the senior management of the local police, and in particular, police chiefs—the “brass.” And complicit in this kleptocracy are the elected officials whose political fortunes depend on police brass support. This is not a question of “defunding the police” or of supporting patrol officers—the “cops on the beat.” Few people in Rockland County support reducing police officer numbers. No one is suggesting that patrol officers or sergeants should not be paid fair compensation for doing their jobs. They face dangers, and should be adequately paid for it. They have union representation to negotiate their salaries. Police brass, on the other hand, do not face the same dangers that patrol officers face. Yet are paid much more than patrol officers. Their compensation is obtained through direct dealings with their town or village elected officials. And therein lies the problem, as “one hand washes the other.” It is very easy for police brass (especially a police chief) to convince elected leaders and the public that they are entitled to hefty salaries because of the dangers involved in policing. Yet there are many dangerous occupations that we citizens depend upon—utility workers, highway department workers, construction workers, truck drivers—and at least 10 occupations are more dangerous than police work according to the both the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the insurance industry. As to policing, patrol men and women face danger when encountering a criminal suspect. This risk deserves adequate compensation. But how many police managers—lieutenants, captains and chief—face such risks? The answer is likely “almost none.” Therefore, personal safety concerns should play no part in compensating police brass. The pay of police managers should be tied to their managerial responsibilities. Police Department managerial responsibilities have two essential components: 1) supervising police personnel and 2) safeguarding the public. And when we are talking about paying local police chiefs’ annual salaries exceeding $200,000, some comparisons are informative. Volunteer Fire Department chiefs. The leadership of volunteer fire departments—themselves unpaid volunteers—are responsible for supervising a large force of volunteers whose job it is to protect the public. One study finds first line firefighter supervisors to be in the 9th most dangerous job. In contrast, police patrol officers are in the 22nd most dangerous.
1. Ambulance Corps leadership. The leaders of volunteer ambulance corps—again, unpaid volunteers—are responsible for volunteer EMTs and drivers who volunteer to protect the public.
2. NYC Police Commissioner. The head of New York City’s 35,000+ uniformed personnel, protecting the safety against crime and terrorism of over 8 million New Yorkers, received an annual salary of $205,180 in 2020.
3. The U.S. Secretary of Defense. He supervises a military of well over 1 million personnel, and over 2 million when reservists are added, and his annual salary is $221,400. Four star generals under his command have base salaries under of around $200,000.
4. Governor of the State of New York. The head of state government and its 131,000+ work force, protecting the safety against crime and terrorism of over 20 million New Yorkers, receives an annual salary of $ 225,000, which is apparently the highest governor salary in the United States.
Most Americans support all emergency service workers. This of course includes the police. However, the question to ask is this: What is the fair and proper salary for suburban police chiefs? For example, the police chief in a town such as Stony Point with a population under 16,000? Is $100,000 a fair salary? $250,000? $500,000? $1 million? Facebook commenters say “we support the police.” But where do we draw the line when it comes to financial support? What criteria should be used to formulate a fair salary? This is not private sector employment. Police officers are civil servants who have job protection allowing them to work until they retire, at which time they also receive considerable taxpayer-funded retirement benefits (e.g., half pay after 20 years’ service). Few employees in the private sector, even the unionized, have similar retirement benefits, even those working in much more dangerous jobs. Civil service (including police) guarantees job security. A town police chief will only be fired for “just cause.” Civil servants historically worked at a lower rate of pay than people employed “at will” in the private sector, because the public sector guaranteed job security. Yet we now see this model turned upside down, with a privileged group of civil servants (e.g., police chiefs) making far more than all other civil servants and almost all the town residents they serve. How is this? Apparently this is because elected representatives—politicians—are afraid to bargain on behalf of the taxpayers. Instead, they allow a “gravy train” for their favored civil servants (e.g., police chiefs and building inspectors and others who exercise authority). The police chiefs support the politicians and the politicians say “yes” to whatever the police chiefs think they can get away with as salary, accrued time payouts and retirement benefits. Stony Point – a case study As a “case study,” it appears that in the town of Stony Point the police union negotiated an 3% annual raise for the rank and file for the period 2011 through 2021 which appears to be about a 30% pay raise during that period, even though the inflation rate during this period was almost zero. As reported by the Journal News, the police chief’s base salary thus rose from $180,730 to $235,471, apparently with other payouts or benefits bringing total annual compensation above $258,000. The taxpayers are also responsible for paying the full cost of the Chief’s medical and dental insurance, and also in contributing an additional percentage of his salary toward his pension (in 28.3% in 2020). The Town’s 2021 budget showed police department “wage” totaling $4,758,478 and “police retirement” benefits totaling $1,056,992 (and town “health & dental” insurance costs totaling $2,982,326). Police department payroll/pension benefits (of almost $6 million) was by far the largest component of the Town’s workforce expenditures. Nor is there any sound explanation why the police chief should receive over twice the pay of a patrol officer in this very small police department. An annual salary of $258,000 plus a 28.3% pension contribution amounts to $331,014 paid by the taxpayers in 2020 for one town employee. It must be recognized that municipal costs must be paid by the taxpayers. The increasingly high cost of local government is quickly resulting in municipalities becoming too expensive for young people to stay here. Bloated police budgets may eventually cause small municipalities such as Stony Point to run out of volunteer firefighters and ambulance corps drivers/EMTs. Young adults will move elsewhere, to places they can afford. These are the young people we need to fill the ranks of our volunteer ambulance and fire department ranks. These volunteer firefighters and EMTs might eventually ask why they are placing themselves at risk when police brass are becoming millionaires at taxpayer expense with almost no personal risk at all. Individual Police Chief contracts of employment As to the ultra-lucrative salary and pensions being granted to the “top brass” in local police departments, especially local police chiefs, it is important to note that this compensation is not negotiated by a union. The police chiefs and senior brass have individual contracts of employment, negotiated with the municipality. As to these, the taxpayers foot the bill. Should the municipality pay its police chief whatever amount the chief demands? That seems increasingly to be the practice. Let’s look at metropolitan New York (outside of New York City), then Rockland, then Stony Point. We see a rapidly growing gravy train of excessive suburban police brass salaries. As reported in News10.com:
“According to SeeThroughNY, of the newest retirees in New York’s State and Local Retirement System eligible for pensions over $100,000, the majority are retired police officers. Pension data was uploaded to SeeThroughNY, the Empire Center for Public Policy’s transparency website, for 441,095 members of the retirement system on Thursday. Out of 702 who retired in 2019, at least 362 are six-figure pensioners previously employed by state police, a local department, or the Port Authority. ***”
For the period 2016 – 2017, of the 50 highest paid county, town and village civil servants in New York State, almost all were from Nassau County, or the Towns of Ramapo or Clarkstown, with the top annual salary $442,000 for Thomas Donnelly of the Ramapo Police Department. The Empire Center for Public Policy, Inc., a fiscal watchdog group, found that for the period 2018 – 2019:
“New York’s highest-paid local government employee … in 2018-19 was Brad R. Weidel, the Police Chief for the Town of Ramapo, who was paid $403,650.”
In the small Town of Stony Point, it appears the recently retired police chief had a 2020 salary of over $258,000, with an accompanying pension of $133,000.  A recently retired police lieutenant, Keith Williams, is receiving a pension of $147,000+. Both of these recent pension amounts are well above those of prior police retirees. A fiscally dangerous-to-the-taxpayer trend is emerging, as the public pays for huge salaries, time accrual payouts and pensions. These metropolitan/suburban New York police pensions (e.g., Stony Point’s) far exceed the “active duty” pay of the vast majority of “upstate” New York police officers. The downstate salaries are obviously getting out of hand. For example, the Empire Center report reveals that village police officer employed in the Long Island and the Mid-Hudson regions are paid on average over three times more than the average $25,000 to $50,000 per year police salaries paid outside those regions. There is even a large pay discrepancy between police officers/chiefs in Orange County and the much higher paid police officers/chiefs in Rockland County. Why the huge pay disparities within New York State? In an outstanding piece of investigative reporting, David McKay Wilson reports on how Hudson Valley police chiefs are fleecing the taxpayers with huge cash ins of sick time, vacation days and holiday pay as they retire. Mr. Wilson points out, for example, how police chiefs commonly bank unused days, earned at low rates of pay but then “cashed” at retirement at their much higher police chief rate of pay. He points out in a related video how some municipalities are trying to curb the abuse. Possible cost-saving tools include caps on sick time accumulation. Or granting unlimited sick time (but allowing no accumulation). Or allowing only an annual buyout of unused days, so that accruals cannot pile up. Mr. McKay quotes Professor Daniel DiSalvo, the CCNY political science chair:
“Payouts like this only exist in the public sector. It’s a total scandal. There’s a problem here with overcompensation.”
Mr. McKay’s reporting demonstrates how, when it comes to police brass and municipal government, the “fox is guarding the henhouse.” The Political Power of the Police Why should the average police officer pay for similar size police agencies be $135,307 for Southold (L.I.), but only $82,078 in De Witt (central NY) and $87,141 in Lancaster (western NY)? Is it police power and persuasion over politicians? Is this why police chief salaries and payouts are particularly outrageous? Or is it simply because the taxpaying public wishes to exorbitantly pay police chiefs, while paying volunteer fire department and ambulance corps chiefs nothing? As to police chief salaries, too often the situation appears to be the “fox guarding the henhouse.” Who, after all, is supervising police chief salaries? Town and village elected officials should be. Yet is appears they are not. Instead, even in small towns such as Stony Point they are lavishly compensating police chiefs with over a million dollars of taxpayer dollars every 4 years. And it is usually done behind closed doors. Elected officials appear afraid to say “no” to exorbitant compensation. They are afraid of being labeled “anti-cop.” They are afraid to negotiate with the public interest in mind. Afraid to stand up for the taxpayers—the public they supposedly are elected to represent. Elected officials often have strong police department connections. In Stony Point, for example, such is clearly the case. The present supervisor is a retired NYPD lieutenant, and immediate past supervisor’s brother is now the town’s new police chief. And there is always the underlying worry—“will the police show up if I need them”—for any elected official who might oppose a police chief salary or union contract. Few people have the courage to oppose the police, especially where compensation is concerned. What should volunteer firefighters and ambulance drivers/EMTs think? All jobs have risks. The author of this paper volunteered to serve with the U.S. military, and spent 29 years in the Army Reserves with over 5 1/2 years on active duty, mostly overseas, including Germany, Iraq and Afghanistan. He was honored to have served the nation. He did not serve for financial enrichment. His retirement pay as a lieutenant colonel for his service to the nation is about $22,000 per year. In Stony Point and Rockland County, there are many selfless individuals—many who are young men and women now serving in volunteer fire departments and ambulance corps. They receive no compensation whatsoever for their volunteer work. They do not serve for financial enrichment. Their service is public service, help protect their communities. It is out of a sense of civic duty. They may risk their lives in providing emergency services. So what should our present and former volunteers in fire departments and ambulance corps say about this? They work or worked for free and also provide necessary protection. They are taxpayers. Is there a fairness issue here? Well, there certainly is a “fiscal reality” issue. If municipalities extravagantly pay police brass (e.g., more than what the Governor, NYC Police Commissioner and FBI Director is paid), it unnecessarily drives up costs for every resident. This will eventually drive young firefighters and EMTs out of their home towns as their municipality becomes unaffordable. And what then? Will firefighters become available only if paid as part of the civil service? The nearby Town of Harrison, across the Hudson, pays 34 firefighters an average of $182,885. Harrison has relative small population (pop. approx. 29,000) and size (17 square miles), and thus is not too different from Stony Point (pop. approx. 15,500 and 31 square miles. If Stony Point paid like Harrison for firefighters, it would amount to $400 per person or about $1,600 per family. Perhaps the fire department could bill the victims of fire (or their insurance companies) as do some (or most) ambulance corps. However, all these costs eventually come back to the local residents, and the costs seem to be ever-increasing. Residing in suburban New York is becoming unaffordable for too many of our inhabitants, some of whom are from families that have resided here for generations. Conclusion We in the suburbs support law enforcement. The issue is not “defunding the police.” It is simply the reasonableness of police chief compensation and the escalating costs to the taxpayer. As to this, there should be open discussion before the municipality’s governing board about what is fair to both the civil servant (police chief) and the municipal taxpayers. Negotiations should not be behind closed doors. There should be transparency. If a police chief applicant does not wish to work for the salary offered by the municipality, the municipal can simply interview more applicants. Managing a small police department does not require an MBA or Ph.D. There are certainly many former NYPD, FBI or military leaders who have sufficient background and experience to more than adequately do the local police chief’s job. The municipality should advertise police chief vacancies and interview qualified applicants. The local police agency should not have a monopoly on who can apply for a taxpayer-funded job. Citizens will “support the police” just as they “support the troops.” Yet this should not mean giving police chiefs a blank check. We can “support the blue” (our police) without lavishing them with “green” (our tax dollars). Public safety must be protected, but so too the public purse.
Paper by: Mike Diederich, Jr. 13 October 2021
 See, Pandora papers: biggest ever leak of offshore data exposes financial secrets of rich and powerful, The Guardian, October 3, 2021, available at https://www.theguardian.com/news/2021/oct/03/pandora-papers-biggest-ever-leak-of-offshore-data-exposes-financial-secrets-of-rich-and-powerful  Some of the author’s writings on this subject are found on the Serve Rockland Civic Association website, www.ServeRockland.com.  See, https://www.ncwriskmanagement.com/blog/2021/01/top-10-most-dangerous-jobs-of-2020 and https://www.bls.gov/iif/oshwc/cfar0020.pdf  See, Univ. of Delaware, “25 Most Dangerous Jobs (Dec. 14, 2020), based upon USBLS data, article available at https://www.facilities.udel.edu/safety/4689/ (“Police officers have a workplace fatality rate similar to maintenance workers, construction workers, and heavy vehicle mechanics.”).  Thus, a police officer who is hired at age 20 and retires from policing at age 40 at a salary of $100,000, and dies at age 90, will receive over his or her 50 years of retirement a total of $2.5 million at taxpayer expense. This is in addition to what he or she earns in a new career after police retirement.  See, David McKay Wilson, Hudson Valley police chiefs cash in big on sick time, vacation days, holidays as they retire, Rockland/Westchester Journal News, October 13, 2020, available at https://www.lohud.com/in-depth/money/personal-finance/taxes/david-mckay-wilson/2021/10/13/hudson-valley-police-chiefs-cash-in-retire/7793548002/.  As reported on www.SeeThroughNY.net.  See, the Facebook page CWTDWYTK at https://m.facebook.com/CTWTDWYTK/photos/a.146396025560550/710186389181508/?type=3&source=57.  Retired Police Chief Brian Moore’s and retired Police Lieutenant Keith Williams’ salary and pension information is available on https://www.seethroughny.net/.  The N.Y.S. Comptroller has an informative “Employer’s Guide” on the subject, available at https://www.osc.state.ny.us/retirement/employers/employers-guide.  See, https://www.empirecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/WTM2019.pdf, at page 34.  See, David McKkay Wilson, Hudson Valley police chiefs cash in big on sick time, vacation days, holidays as they retire, Rockland/Westchester Journal News, October 13, 2020, available at https://www.lohud.com/in-depth/money/personal-finance/taxes/david-mckay-wilson/2021/10/13/hudson-valley-police-chiefs-cash-in-retire/7793548002/.  The video can be seen at https://www.lohud.com/videos/money/personal-finance/taxes/david-mckay-wilson/2021/10/13/how-hudson-valley-police-chiefs-big-payouts-when-they-retire/6091053001/.  Id., at pages 26-27. Copyright 2021