Monday, May 19, 2008

Econ 101 is not part of police training.

If you were driving in the Tucson area last weekend, you'd have seen, at I-10 exits, billboards complaining that policemen and police women in the "Phoenix Valley" (try finding that one on a topo map!) perform the "same job" as Tucson officers, with the "same danger" (less than fishing, mining, or trucking, if fatalities are a good metric), but receive $20,000 less compensation per year.

These billboards were purchased by the "TPOA", short for the Tucson Police Officers' Association, which, according to its website, is the "exclusive Bargaining Unit for Sergeants, Detectives, Officers, and Marshals of the Tucson Police Department." In other words, the police officers' union.

The union had the bad fortune of being in contract talks when the city is facing a $12MM shortfall, thus, for the past month, the union has been bickering with City Manager Mike Hein over his budget. Like any other union, TPOA has two objectives: to preserve its own power and to negotiate better conditions of employment, including compensation, for its members. Unlike a private-sector union, the TPOA can demagogue the issue, and has been doing so in a manner so crass as to verge on extortion, taking to the airwaves and even using on-duty contacts with the public to claim that response times are slow because TPD is understaffed. In other words: "Service will continue to be lousy until Hein caves in. You can't just get rid of us and hire a new police force, and you want to be safe, right?"

Nonsense. Police priorities and practices have room for adjustment; every officer handing out speeding tickets or busting college students for drinking beer is one who can't respond in a timely fashion to calls. Every time two or three cars are sent when one would suffice stretches the force thin. And if we must put more officers on the street or give them raises, selling the helicopter, which gives Tucson a nice Third World feel, is a start.

Having below the national average ratio of officers to residents is of no concern if the national average is too high. The city plans to add 500 officers over the next eight years, but that doesn't mean that the city is somehow 500 officers short. The case hasn't been made that we don't already have enough. Do we even need the new 500 or can adjustments to practices and priorities be made?

Back to those billboards: The TPOA is an autochthonous union run by real police officers, not labor lawyers and similar lumpens. Like most people, these officers have probably heard the word "economics" but never picked up a book on the subject. Clearly they're upset because they find it unjust that others doing the same job in different cities receive different compensation. This is the "Daddy Model" of fairness, perhaps hardwired in the human brain. It appeals to economic illiterates, but to follow it uniformly is a recipe for instant totalitarianism. Following it piecemeal is not benign, either; to apply it in this case would mean that the people of Tucson would get a raw deal. "We raised police pay just because they asked. Had we negotiated and compromised, you'd be getting more for your taxes."

If pay is truly too low, police will start leaving, and hires will become difficult. Even when a union is in place, there's no escape from the laws of microeconomics. If Tucson's pay were too low to hire and retain officers, we'd hear Chief Miranda making it to Hein.

To clarify: I don't object on principle to higher pay for police officers. If the market demands it, what can I say? Lowering professional standards would, of course, allow the City to hire officers for less, and that is unacceptable. I don't object to raising pay as a result of raising standards. I want police that say "yes sir" and "no ma'am", who know what mental illness is and looks like, who keep their sidearms holstered and fingers off the trigger unless truly in danger. I want police who understand that, when an earthmover is creeping toward an occupied squad car, moving the car or getting people out of the way is a better response than shooting a kid. I want the thin blue line broken and testi-lying punished severely. And I want merit pay for police. Policemen are not interchangeable like meatpackers or longshoremen; the truly good ones ought to be rewarded and retained, and, for our safety, the bad ones, the testosterone-pumped, deranged half-wits attracted to the job for all the wrong reasons, "encouraged" to seek some other form of employment.

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