When discussing the sensitive subject of public employee compensation, there are several important dimensions that must be considered – can we afford it, is it appropriate and fair, how does it compare to the private sector (if comparisons can even be made), what are the additional costs for employer paid benefits, and how do we estimate the annual employer payments required to fund future retirement pensions and healthcare?
When discussing public safety compensation, there is an additional layer of complexity – how do we adequately value the premium that public safety personnel deserve as compensation for the risks they take in the performance of their jobs? These are tough questions that have been explored here and elsewhere. These discussions are healthy and necessary. But there is another question that is worth exploring, for all public employees but especially with respect to public safety employees – if they are to be highly compensated, than what expectations may the public have regarding their professionalism, and how may they be held accountable for their conduct?
Before going any further, it is important to add the following points: Public safety jobs require higher levels of education and job skills than they ever have, for a variety of reasons. Crime itself has become far more sophisticated and menacing, ranging from cyber crime to terrorism to the emergence of global organized crime organizations. At the same time, we expect more from public safety – and they have delivered. Almost everywhere in the United States, crime rates are at historic lows. You get what you pay for. Moreover, the value we place on human life is higher than ever, meaning that what may have constituted an acceptable risk premium for working in law enforcement fifty years ago is not nearly enough today. Fair enough.
None of this, however, exempts public safety from an ongoing public discussion regarding police conduct. It is our obligation as members of a democracy, as opposed to a police state, to have this discussion, to ask tough questions, and to resist unfounded suggestions that to question some law enforcement tactics or training somehow equates with a lack of support for law enforcement personnel or the tough jobs they do.
The brutal, tragic demise of Kelly Thomas, a mentally disturbed man who managed to get himself severely beaten by six police officers in Fullerton, California back in July, 2011, brings this question into focus – he later died after lapsing into a coma for several days. The reason the Thomas case is worth bringing up is not because these police officers were “bad apples,” who used excessive force. The reason is because the two officers who, apparently, were most responsible for this beat down were acquitted in January 2014, by a jury that deliberated for less than two hours. Apparently these officers were doing exactly what they were trained to do.
Which brings us to the video. Watch this heartbreaking 33 minute video, and ask yourself if this is how we should be training our police officers to behave. Watch the whole thing, weep if you have a heart, and wonder how we can’t come up with training that might avoid what happened that night in Fullerton.
The Kelly Thomas case is rare, but not unheard of. Unarmed citizens, often mentally disturbed or intoxicated, or emotionally overwrought, may end up severely beaten or dead if they aren’t immediately respectful and compliant with police officers. But sometimes it’s hard for someone who is mentally disturbed, or intoxicated, or emotionally overwrought, to be immediately compliant. Their reason is impaired. Should they die? Is that a capital offense?
The point of all this isn’t to second guess the police, who are out on the streets day and night, and who have insights that a civilian can only try to appreciate. The point of this is to ask one simple question: What does professionalism cost? Because saying “they’re [fists] getting ready to f— you up,” is not something that a police officer should be saying to anyone, ever, including Kelly Thomas (transcript, top of page 13, video at 15:20). Because the sacred duty of police officers in a free society is to enforce the law with equanimity, using deadly force as a last resort, and never with malice.
If you review the rates of pay for Fullerton police officers, or for public safety employees throughout California’s cities, you will see that on average they collect pay and employer paid benefits of about $170,000 per year – median pay is actually a bit higher. And these averages do not take into account the costs for unfunded liabilities for retirement pensions and health care which certainly represent additional costs that accrue, and legitimately belong in any calculation of average compensation. To make that kind of money in the private sector requires someone ascending to the upper, if not elite, strata of business. It is a sum of money that merits high expectations.
The surveillance cameras that caught on video the death of Kelly Thomas represent the bright, transparent side of the era we’re entering, where everyone shall watch everyone, where nothing will be secret. There is a price to pay as we lose our privacy, but there is also a benefit. Beat downs like the one that befell Kelly Thomas will be increasingly viewed by the public, and hopefully as a result, changes will come to the training manuals that will hopefully preclude officers beating an unarmed man in the head with a baton, when he’s on the ground and going nowhere.
Respect for the dignity of all citizens isn’t something that we should only reserve for the polite, the professional, and the law abiding. That’s easy. Along with firm justice, we must offer abiding respect for the troubled, the sick, the destitute and homeless, the angry, the desperate, and yes, even the disrespectful and the criminal, because they are also human beings. How else can we hope to remain a free people?
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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center