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Get What You Pay For

Every day a new video circulates of bad behavior by police. Someone is harassed, beaten, or even killed in what appears to be an absolutely senseless fashion. Far too often, the victims are black – but not always. It can, and does, happen to nearly anyone.

Earlier this week, another video came in from Toronto. Constable Ken Lam was seen facing down the suspect in a mass killing with determination and grace. He never flinched, and eventually made a peaceful arrest. It was law enforcement at its very best.

What is different? There are many things that made this different, including the race of the suspect, to be sure. But as an example of the kind of cool professionalism we all hope to see in our police there is one important difference in Toronto – their law enforcement officers are paid much, much better than the average US cop.

Constable Ken Lam and his father, Officer David Lam.

Constable Ken Lam may have been born to be a cop. Here he is posing with his father, David Lam, an officer in the Hong Kong Police. There’s no doubt that remaining cool under fire and managing the adrenaline that comes with a tense situation is helped by the right genes. Not everyone is born to be a hero.

Beyond the smiles, however, the Toronto police have had their own small scandal for many years. It was revealed three years ago that, with all the various overtime and special assignments, more than half of their force earns over C$100k per year. It actually averages C$120k per year per constable, about US$100k.

This compares with the very highest paid police force in the US, in San Jose, California. Both cities are expensive to live in, so a full breakdown of any given officer’s budget and their family expenses is hard to calculate. What we do know is that, on average, a police officer in the US makes about $61k per year. The total cost of police salaries is about $40 billion, with a total cost including benefits near $80B.

Ken Lam probably makes nearly US$100k per year, or a solid 66% more than the average US officer.

Well, the laws do apply to you. Plus a little more.

There is no doubt that in the US, we need to insist on much higher standards for our police. We need them to de-escalate situations, not make them worse. We need to stop protecting those who create mayhem and violence. We have to insist on much, much more from our officers in general.

In exchange, we have to support them much better in every way. They need the right training. They need backup from community organizers and city hall itself. They have to be protected from burnout and PTSD. And, on top of it all, we have to pay them much better as we insist that they act as the cool professionals we know we need.

You do indeed get what you pay for.

Police in the US are uniquely funded entirely by local governments. At the bottom of our political structure, their budgets are usually squeezed by a number of different forces. They all rely heavily on property tax, which is usually regressive. They face competition among themselves for tax breaks given to relocating large employers. Local government, which provides most of the essential services we rely on, is always heavily squeezed.

Good police are expensive, and are often the biggest single expense to local government. That has a lot to do with the lousy pay and understaffing that is so rampant.

De-escalation is a value.

There are many differences between Ken Lam and the police that are seen in far too many videos acting in ways that none of us want to see in our officers. Being from a cop family certainly has a lot to do with his cool professionalism. Crossing international borders also has a way of focusing the mind on fundamentals as you learn to navigate a world where so much is different.

But one of those differences is that as a Toronto Constable, Lam is paid like a professional. His pay is indeed controversial, and many in the city wonder if they should be paying their police as much as they do.

The results speak for themselves, I think.

$80B spent on police may sound like a lot, but it’s only one eight of what we give to the Defense Department every year. Local governments might well need support from the federal government if we are going to improve the quality of our policing. But any such proposal has to come as part of a general package, a new policy for better policing all across the nation.

IF we want better from our police, we have to insist on it, as many activists have been calling for. We also have to show them more respect, which is indeed often measured in dollars. It takes both to turn this around, and we have to find the money somewhere.

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One thought on “Get What You Pay For

  1. This is at the heart of our backward priorities. Bankers, hedge-fund managers, federal politicians, CEOs, and the like, all make obscene amounts of money for doing very little actual productive work. The most important professions – the teachers, the medical and child care givers, the police, etc. – are paid from the dregs left in our budgets. Will we ever correct this?

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