Every news cycle brings competing headlines: Should we defund the cops or pay them more to stop the exodus of experienced officers? Although major newspapers cover major cities, I am here to remind the reader that rural police and police departments are not immune to the influence of inflation and market pressures. The same financial pressures that result in retention issues make an already tough field an even tougher sell for recruiting.
In this case, what to do West Virginia, Oklahoma, Florida, Caroline from the south, Arkansas and Georgia have in common? They all have bills pending to raise the pay of law enforcement officers (mostly state). While some of the increases are substantial, the effects on officer pay would be modest, partly because the starting salary is so low now, and partly because it’s been a long time since the last pay raise. In Oklahoma, it would be the first increase soldiers have seen in seven years.
Proposed pay increases for state troopers — many of whom live and patrol in relatively remote locations — are of concern to local agencies, which lose seasoned officers when neighboring departments pay higher salaries. In response, a group of Arizona lawmakers drafted a invoice which states that the starting salary for deputy sheriffs cannot be more than 5% lower than the average salaries of the county’s two highest-paid law enforcement agencies. Whether or not it passes, the fact that lawmakers saw the need for such a bill raises a question: what assumptions prevent agents from being paid fairly (enough to keep them faithful and work hard) no matter where they work?
Since I write about small, rural and remote agencies, let’s answer this by addressing three common misconceptions about compensation and rural policing.
1. Police work is a calling, so cops who worry about their pay do it for the wrong reasons.
It may be a calling, but most cops aren’t volunteers with lucrative day jobs. Having bills to pay and families to support doesn’t negate a sense of mission, or mean officers who want decent pay are greedy. This means that they are normal humans, with a sense of responsibility to their families and personal obligations, as well as their communities.
Wanting to be able to participate in hobbies is healthy and helps manage stress, but even camping costs money. Wanting to be able to repay debts, build up savings and ensure the education of a child is responsible, not mercenary. Wanting to rent or buy a house in a safe neighborhood makes sense, not pretentious.
The problems created by extremely low pay in law enforcement received much-needed scrutiny after the investigations in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, but the problems haven’t gone away. Simplistic search results from national averages because police pay camouflages the very low pay which averages about $60,000 a year. There are still many places – hundreds, if not thousands of agencies – where agents are paid in the low 30s each year.
2. It costs less to live in rural areas, so a low salary is good
This one is simple: in a lot of rural places, it’s really expensive to live. Rural and remote policing takes place in and near tourist destinations like national parks, coasts, and ski resorts. Rural cops work in sprawling ranches, mountains, and deserts that have become fashionable playgrounds for the wealthy, driving up prices for buyers and renters. In many western states, where the distances are enormous and the geography hostile, there may simply not be housing as city dwellers know it, affordable or not. Rising rents and the lack of availability force agents to make trips that devour ever larger portions of their household budget.
[RELATED: When housing costs hinder hiring]
In one example, Park County, Colorado covers over 2,000 square miles, with only about 18,000 residents. The sheriff needs 18 deputies; he has eight. A recent pay raise raised the starting salary for deputies to $48,000 a year, but the average home in Park County costs nearly $600,000, and there are almost no multi-family dwellings. Chiefs and sheriffs in Colorado and Idaho are cut night patrolslaunch fundraising for basic equipment like ballistic vests, and go to war with their county or city governments over budgets. These constraints spill over to lagging pay for officers, with few cost-of-living adjustments, let alone increases.
Small increases are quickly eaten up by higher payroll costs for health care coverage and pension contributions. Smaller employee pools and fewer vendors drive up insurance premiums, preventing agents from seeing a real increase on the pay stub. The more remote the location, the more expensive groceries, car repairs, gas prices and medical care. In small towns, it is also more difficult to find jobs for spouses and to find childcare services when jobs are available.
3. The benefits make up for the salary, however
While that was probably true once, that is no longer the case.
Until the past 30 years, law enforcement was seen as a stable, if not very expensive, career path with a brass ring at the end in the form of a modest but dignified retirement. Health care was a no-brainer. Today, health care as a benefit technically still exists, but premium costs increasingly fall on the agent rather than the employer. Once upon a time, health care benefits that covered the officer and dependents were a given; now it is common for only the employee to be covered. Dependent coverage is “available” with the premium deducted from payroll, sometimes subsidized by the agency, but often at full price. When this is the case, dependents may be prohibited from shopping the ACA Marketplace for more affordable options because, technically, they “already have insurance available.”
And pensions? These still exist, but they’re not the Golden Parachute that audiences think they are. Even in a strong defined-benefit system, they only pay a percentage of base salary; the lower the base salary, the lower the pension will be, and many law enforcement officers are not eligible to participate in Social Security.
Some states are experimenting with hybrid or defined-contribution (401K-style) pension plans as cost-cutting measures, and the change is negatively affecting retention. As recruitment lingers and seasoned officers leave, taking with them institutional knowledge, Alaska and Kentucky rework their retirement plans. What they lose outweighs the savings. Similarly, Utah reduced its retirement percentage to a paltry 35% of base salary after age 25, from the previous 50% at age 20. State first aid agencies paid the price in turnover, as exhausted and disappointed workers left for other states or other areas. Like Kentucky and Alaska, Utah lawmakers backtrackin the hope of stemming the bleeding.
It’s not greed or ingratitude, it’s just economics
Law enforcement as a profession differs from urban to rural areas only in its scale; in all contexts, the work has become more complex. Training and education requirements are higher, and interactions with the public are increasingly strained with very high legal and social stakes. It is no longer a career field where a high school graduate can learn on the job and earn a living in the middle class.
Instead, we get a real-time lesson in economics in compensate for salary differences: Jobs that are unpleasant, require higher skill levels, or are dangerous, require higher pay levels to attract enough people to do the jobs. It’s that simple. officers in lowest paid localities, with fringe benefits and variable leadership, can read headlines announcing Target’s new starting salary and wonder if they are making the right choice. When Walmart increases the starting salary of truckers at $110,000 a year, it’s easy to see how much less appealing a job requiring a gun, a Kevlar vest, and the possibility of being sued for a mistake can seem than before. There may not be Target stores in the country, but truckers can live there if they want.
Market pressures are compressing current leaders and candidates. The need to adjust salary grids stems from “a lack of consideration— in other words, what was once an acceptable level of pay has diminished so much in value that agents are simply no longer willing to do the job for the same rate of pay. In fact, they can’t and they vote with their feet.
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