Last week, Mayor Chuck Reed and Councilmember Sam Liccardo submitted a proposal to bolster our public safety capacity by focusing on San Jose’s inability to retain police officers. The gist of the Reed-Liccardo proposal was to hire 200 police officers by restoring wages by 10 percent within the next four years. On the surface, this sounds like a reasonable idea. However, because this proposal was more about timely politics than about meaningful policy, I could not support the plan.
There is no question that the ability to retain our current police officers and the ability to recruit new, talented officers are critically important, because we are now approaching a third consecutive year where at least 100 officers will have left the police department. To provide some context, in 2009, we had just under 1,400 police officers. According to a report given to the council just last week, we now have just under 1,000 officers. The Reed-Liccardo plan will not solve this crisis.
First, the plan fails to recognize that the total compensation for SJPD officers is down as much as 20 percent or more if you include the amount that officers pay into their own retirement. This is particularly relevant because neighboring communities—where our police officers are now going—pay significantly more in total compensation. Second, it is important to note that the City’s most recent offer to the police union is a 2.5 percent raise a year for two years. If this framework were to be followed over the next four years, we would essentially be saying to our police officers that by 2017 we will pay you what you were getting paid back in 2009. Given the current rate of police resignations and retirements, I have significant concerns that the Reed-Liccardo plan is not nearly substantial enough to stem the tide of police departures.
For these reasons, I suggested scrapping the four-year timeframe of the Reed-Liccardo plan and examining strategies to accomplish the same goals within a shorter time frame. This recommendation was rejected by Councilmember Liccardo, which doesn’t speak well of our supposed commitment to making San Jose safe and restoring police pay as quickly as possible.
Furthermore, the Reed-Liccardo plan fails to take into account the impact of one of the most repugnant (and under-reported) aspects of Measure B: the new eligibility criteria for disability service retirements for police officers and fire fighters that is possibly the most restrictive in California.
Under Measure B, a person will be considered disabled only if that person “cannot do work that they did before” and, if that person is a police officer or a firefighter, “cannot perform any other jobs described in the city’s classification plan in the employee’s department.” The truly unconscionable part of the new disability rule is that “the determination of qualification for a disability retirement shall be made regardless of whether there are other positions available at the time a determination is made.” (emphasis added)
So, here’s an example of what this new disability retirement definition means for practical purposes. Let’s say a police officer is injured while on duty and ends up in a wheelchair. As a result, he can no longer do the same work prior to the injury. Under the new rules, he would be required to take any other job in the department that he is still capable of performing, such as a fingerprint examiner or as a crime prevention specialist. However, if all the positions for clerks and fingerprint examiners are filled, as is often the case, he will not qualify for a disability retirement. No other law enforcement or fire department in the state has such restrictive policies for those who serve and protect us. I mention this because the reduced wages and benefits play a large role in the recent police departures, but they are not the only cause. Measure B, particularly the new disability provisions, demeans the men and women who work to protect us.
It is also important to remember that the police officers voluntarily took a 10 percent cut in pay to help San Jose get through the recent recession. Interestingly, in his blog article that links to his recent Change.org petition in support of his proposal, Councilmember Liccardo chose to recap recent history by noting that “[d]uring the Great Recession, we made tough choices and difficult cuts because revenues fell and retirement obligations ballooned. In those years, employee unions like the San Jose Police Officer Association (POA) demanded that we continue to spend money we did not have to sustain retirement benefits.” Liccardo’s history lesson fails to note that in July 2011, the POA agreed to a pay cut in the amount of 10 percent, and that in December of 2011, the POA agreed to extend that pay cut through June 2013. An accurate “history” lesson should have mentioned these facts.
Although the Reed-Liccardo plan makes for great headlines on campaign mailers or sound bites for the 11 o’clock news, it is not going to close the floodgates of officers leaving San Jose. Last week, Councilmember Liccardo seemed to take offense to some of my comments suggesting that the sudden urgency to deal with police officer retention is political in nature, particularly with the mayor’s race now before us. To think that this proposal has nothing to do with mayoral aspirations and campaigns would be naïve, especially since this is the only proposal submitted by Councilmember Liccardo that was also accompanied by a very public Change.org petition.
And while political motivations and good policy are not necessarily mutually exclusive, it is very difficult to conclude that the motivations here are anything other than political when the grave concerns that I and other councilmembers have regularly expressed—city employee retention and public safety priorities—have routinely fallen on deaf ears for the last three years.
In order for us to get back to providing quality services to our residents and significantly reduce our pension costs, we need to start working with our employees to reduce their pension benefits and increase their contributions legally. Before we lose more officers, we should immediately suspend the additional payments required of our officers to pay for pension debt they did not create. If we do not suspend these payments, end the extraordinarily expensive lawsuits, and work together for a more realistic plan, our officers will soon be paying up to 16 percent of their pay just for the unfunded liability debt. If you were a police officer or firefighter facing a bill for a debt that you did not create, and it required 16 percent of your pay, how attractive would the promise of a 2.5-percent raise be?
There is no doubt that reversing this recent trend of police departures will not be easy, nor will it be inexpensive. The Reed-Liccardo plan only identifies a handful of potential funding sources, which is understandable, because finding sufficient funding to restore our bare-bones police department will be difficult. However, it would be easier to believe that the motivations for the Reed-Liccardo plan were not political if Councilmember Liccardo had been open to considering additional funding sources, as another councilmember and I suggested. Unfortunately, this suggestion was also rejected by Councilmember Liccardo.
To stem the tide of public safety departures, we don’t need politics, we need a plan. Unfortunately, the proposal offered by Reed and Liccardo falls short.
Ash Kalra is a councilmember for San Jose’s District 2.