Preserving benefits trumps public safety

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Police union leaders are forever claiming that their highest priority is public safety. But the evidence says otherwise – it is more about money, even if that means cannibalizing their ranks.

As the Boston Globe reports, a lawsuit brought by Boston police went before the Supreme Judicial Court this week. And if the union wins, the likely outcome will be cuts in police staffing throughout the state.

The suit is over funding for the Police Career Incentive Pay Program, more commonly known as the Quinn Bill, which has drained public safety funding since 1970. It is one of the reasons that police base pay, which the unions regularly cite to claim that officers are underpaid, is such a fiction.

In communities that adopted the Quinn Bill, officers get salary bonuses for earning college degrees in criminal justice or law. Essentially, it is another way to cloak pay increases. A bachelor’s degree yields an annual bonus of 20 percent. For a level of education that ought to be required just to qualify for the job, the average benefit to an officer with a college degree is $10,000. The cost to the state, which used to split the cost with the communities, was more than $50 million a year.

“Used to,” is the key to the lawsuit. In 2009, with the state’s bill projected to rise to $58 milllion, Gov. Deval Patrick and the Legislature cut funding for the program to $10 million, to help close a budget gap. Most municipalities, including Boston, continued to pay their half, but refused to fund the state’s half.

The suit seeks to force Boston to pay the full amount. And if the court sides with the union, that will set a precedent that will likely force other communities to do the same.

As Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation notes:

This is a very important case for cities and towns in terms of their finances … Certainly, in some communities, there will be the ironic outcome of layoffs of police officers if municipalities are required to pick up the state’s share.

Ironic indeed. If the union really cared about public safety, there would be no lawsuit. It would be much more important to them to keep cops on the streets.

Opposition to this suit, or the Quinn Bill in general, is not about hating cops, which is the standard “victim” card played by the union. It is about fiscal reality. It would be just as silly to say that the cops hate taxpayers and hate their communities. They don’t. But this is a gravy train that has not been affordable for years.

Nobody likes a pay cut. But those in the private sector have been dealing with layoffs, cuts in hours, pay and benefits and other financial pain for the past decade. The police union ought to be willing to share in that pain to help their communities avoid layoffs. If they don’t, their claim that public safety is their priority will have no credibility.