From 1976 to 1991, I served as police chief of San Jose. I was never a member of, nor represented by, the Police Officers Association and was not included in the Police Retirement Fund. I do not collect a pension from San Jose and have no vested financial interest in whether or not the Pension Reform Ballot Measure passes. I do firmly believe, however, that the issue of pension reform has been unfairly framed for discussion against the legitimate interests of the police and the public.
During my 15 years as chief, I was often at odds with the POA during contract negotiations and earned a Vote of “No Confidence” by the POA, which nearly cost me my job for fighting with them over work conditions and discipline. Nevertheless, I always supported paying competitive police salaries and benefits for the simple reason that you can’t have a police department without cops.
In the 80s, police salaries and benefits in San Jose had fallen so low that we could not compete for recruits with other police departments or against the enormous demands of Silicon Valley’s expanding labor market. At one point, I was forced to reduce educational standards for appointment and received a letter of reprimand from the otherwise supportive Latino Peace Officer’s Association. The salary situation got so bad that a wave of “Blue Flu” struck. For seven harrowing days the city hung on the brink of anarchy. Fortunately, enough cops worked 12 hours on and off to prevent a crime wave, but they notified the City Council that they could not continue indefinitely. Finally, a judge ordered the POA back to work. Negotiations resumed and the City Council ratified a contract that gave officers more than they had agreed to accept before the work stoppage. The Council also fired a city manager that had bungled the negotiations by demeaning cops, raising emotions to a level all too similar to today’s political climate.
It’s a lesson for the future. Present police benefits are not the sole or primary cause of the city’s fiscal problems. Many other questionable political decisions have depleted city revenues and increased non-essential costs during a time calling for restraint in spending. A succession of mayors and city councils did what they had to do to hire cops. The city and POA engaged in tough and extended negotiations following state laws. Cops did not “occupy” City Hall or engage in unlawful conduct to insist upon their demands. Both sides signed legal contracts guaranteeing today’s benefits for existing employees. In return, San Jose got a bargain, becoming the safest large city in the nation with the least per-capita police staffing, and the United States Civil Rights Commission declared the SJPD a national model.
Benefits for future employees have always been fair game for negotiations, but it is not in the public interest to demoralize the police by breaking existing contracts negotiated in good faith. The police are the ultimate symbol of American government and its defender against mobs.
When cops themselves lose faith in government’s willingness to follow its own laws, it doesn’t bode well for democracy as a whole. It is imperative that the police who protect citizens’ rights don’t come to believe that the public has turned against them and lost respect for the important job they do.
Joseph D. McNamara is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.