A Lesson from the Past

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.


  1. I couldn’t agree more, Chief.  It seems sometime that history teaches nothing…  People, especially those holding public office, are often very short-sighted. 

    Thanks for the perspective, and for saying what our current chief should be saying.  We miss you here, Sir.

  2. Thank you former Chief McNamara for this very well written, educational, level headed, and informative column. I support our Police and Fire Fighters 100%. They are the reason we can walk down the street feeling safe, sleep in our beds at night without fear, and know that if we ever need them they will be there for us. In return, they deserve our support and respect. They deserve to know that WE are there for them too.

    These incredible men/women make incredible sacrifices for us, including giving up precious time with their families to serve us.  We owe them more than money for their service to us. We owe them respect, and gratitude for risking their lives, putting their personal feelings aside during times of crisis, for risking their health and well being, and for putting their family relationships in jeopardy to serve and protect us.

    Demonizing and scapegoating them for our budget woes is not, nor has it ever been acceptable to me. I voted NO on Measure V, and B. The City needs to treat our public servants with respect, and negotiate in “good faith,” with them.

    The public needs to stop whining about how little they earn in comparison to Police and Fire. They need to realize the importance of these vital servants, and stop comparing their everyday jobs to that of these public servants because they are not putting their lives on the line everyday for others.

    To all you public servants out there, thank you, and please, be SAFE out there!

  3. I think it could have been handled better.

    I think there is a fundamental disconnect on what constitutes a contract breach.  Workers in the private sector would not consider it a violation of vested right to have their pension altered after hiring.  Vested right in the private sector only apply to pension benefits that have been earned.

    HP, IBM and many other companies used to have pension plans.  These companies terminated the plans about 20 years ago.  Employees got to keep whatever pension benefits were earned, but had to settle for a 401(k) going forward.

    Employees in the private sector do not have the same vested rights as public employees in CA.  That’s why the Tea Party gets traction with their screed about big government.  As in government for the government, by the government and so on.

    • s randall,

      There is one important fact that was never brought to light. While it is true of the changes you mentioned in the private sector retirement plans, what is not mentioned is that before and after those changes were made private sector employees always contributed to the Social Security system. In the case of San Jose Police Officers and Fire Fighters they do not earn or pay into Social Security while employed as police officers and fire fighters. Additionally, should they manage to earn enough credits in the Social Security system because of employment before or after their careers those Social Security benefits are severely offset by their retirement. Even though they paid into it and earned it.

      Rarely, if at all, do you hear of this.

      • A lot of people that have to contribute to Social Security think it’s unfair that government employees don’t.  A lot of people feel it’s yet another example of the government making one set of rules for itself and one set for the hoi polloi.

        • I think the private citizen should also pay 53% of their pay check into social security, because I don’t want to pay for the unfunded liability with my tax money that was created by the federal government.

    • That’s just it knothead! They aren’t private sector. That’s the point! I’m sick and tired of those jobs being compared to the private sector.  Why don’t we just take it to its ultimate conclusion then…let’s make police and fire positions private sector, civilians just like the rest. Contract it all out! Is that what you really think is best. Because it can’t be both ways. Their either public sector with protections or their not. Pick one or the other. I’m confident that you’ll want it public sector with private sector benefits. Hats a recipe for desaster. Did you ever see the movie Robo Cop? That’s a good representation of private sector cops. That’s your future! Enjoy!

      • I think I read arguments a couple of years ago about how it was necessary that police be able to marry in retirement and leave that spouse a survivor’s pension that were about as forceful as your.

        I was surprised to find that a “liberal” friend of mine, one that is drawing a pension from the County, is against the two state measures that will raise taxes to support public safety and schools.  He thinks government has gotten too big and too wasteful.  I asked him about his pension, and he didn’t see it as relevant.  Fairness is relative.

  4. Well said! as usual, Joseph D. McNamara says it like it is. This is a welcome comment coming from a well respected figure on the inside, instead of the obviously bias of the SJ mercury news. Its the first time that We’ve heard anyone of importance mention that no one held a gun to the heads of SJ officials past or present that signed these benefits/CONTRACTS into law. Its the first time that we’ve heard from anyone in a position of respect and importance, mention that the City spent money on many things that it couldn’t and cant afford. As mention in a recent SJ mercury news editorial, the city had to lay off police because it couldn’t open 4 library’s and a police substation. No one has mentioned that the City couldn’t afford to build them either, they borrowed the money to build them. To this day, the city spends money on things that are not in the city charter or municipal code. Everything eventual goes full circle. When the city cant recruit qualified people to staff its positions for police, Fire, Engineers and all of the other civil servant positions that make up a city work force, I’m confident that politicians like Chuck and his gang of 5or6,(depending on which way the wind is blowing),will be saying that we need to offer these people better benefits to compete with other agency’s. Here’s an idea guy’s, how about you offer them less money/salary now, for a PENSION later. Gee! that sounds familiar. Where have I heard that before?

  5. Well written Mr McNamara.  It applies to more than cops though.  All the city workers are being made scapegoats.  Pension reform might be needed but it shouldn’t be done so punitively because the consequences are dire. 

    It troubles me greatly the tone of many of the replies by cops and firefighters in these blogs who have the “stupid voters you’ll see what you get” type responses to anyone who doesn’t outright condemn the Mayor.  The veiled threat of we won’t be there when your house is being robbed burning down or being attacked is shameful.  I understand the cops frustration but deciding not to do their job as a response will only get them less support and more disdain from the public.

    • Aware D5,

      That tone troubles me too.  However, I believe it’s more emotional venting than anything else.  Working on the street forty-plus hours a week as a supervisor, I can say that I have seen no examples of police officers or fire fighters failing to do their jobs because of these emotions.  On the contrary, I continue to see hard-working, dedicated people doing their best in spite of their feelings.

      • I don’t disagree with that either.  I can’t say I’ve noticed cops watching speeders blow past them or ignore suspicious characters just to make a point.  However I was troubled recently by the fire staff response to the home that burned on the Milpitas border the other day.  The initial statement was that budget cuts caused the house to burn because water supply and personnel wasn’t available but later the corrected that saying it wasn’t the case.  Trying to scare the public into supporting them is nothing short of bully tactics.  They should instead educate the public, we’re smart enough to know we need both police & fire services and respect for those that choose that line of work would be upheld if they hold on to the integrity of the position rather than bullying and stooping to the tactics they accuse the Mayor of.

    • Yes! Aware D5, it is unfortunate that the comments by some individuals and the implied veiled threat. I for one can understand their anger and resentment. However, I don’t believe that any of them really mean it. They wouldn’t take on those Police and Fire jobs if they were that type of people in the first place. I think the bigger picture here is that the way that measure B was written, even if future politicians recognize the need to treat these men and woman the with benefits commensurate with there duties, they won’t be able to change them without the citizen voting in the changes. The result will be that the Police and Fire departments will have to hire the dregs, the people that 5 years ago would have been been selected. The type that you would want doing the job, because all of the best, most qualified, educated and talented will go to work for the agency’s that won’t scape goat them and or throw them under the bus, Because upper management (I use the term loosely) mismanaged not only all of the City finances but the retirement systems as well. The old adage is still true, you get what you pay for.That goes for ALL CITY EMPLOYEES!

      • If they don’t mean it, they shouldn’t say it publically.  It is giving them collectively a black eye with the public.  I’ve heard the point you raise before and I wonder how difficult it is in other cities across the state.  Aren’t other police and fire services being cut and trimmed as cities face financial issues?  So the threat of only the dregs are available isn’t really valid.  Its like the tech industry and private sector, as more and more people are laid off, companies with job openings can be choosier rather than less of a pool because there are so many qualified and out of work (or simply disgruntled) people out there.

        • Businesses and municipalities alike have to compete regionally when it comes to compensation in order to attract high-quality candidates.  Even before Measure B takes effect, San Jose PD is dead-last in overall compensation in the Bay Area, and far below every other agency in Santa Clara County.  Honestly, I could go to work as a patrol OFFICER for virtually any other agency in the Bay Area and make several hundred (in some cases over a thousand) dollars a month more than I do in San Jose as a SUPERVISOR, along with getting a substantially better, lower-cost pension.

          When SJPD recently put out the call for new applicants only 800 people applied for 70 authorized positions.  We used to get thousands of applicants, even before the recession.  By contrast, when Oakland PD announced it was hiring earlier this year, they had 2,500 applicants for 55 positions.

    • Aware D5 ask the firemen or the policemen on the street and they will not give you the honest answer as what is going on. They have been told by the City Manager that if someone complains about service or slow response not to send the complainer to council or Mayor.  SO were there enough firemen for the fire the other day. NO. The cuts have hurt staffing and safety.  Are there enough policemen to safely police. NO.  1600 two years ago to 1000.  Not hard to figure the math I think someone on this forum said its the same as private sector cutting back.  REALLY.  Yahoo can cut back staff and I may not get an email. Public safety cuts back and someone is dead.  NOT THE SAME.  The police you talk about calling people out are more of the retired folks that are upset to see a safe city fall a part because they believe a lawyer Mayor over them who put their lives on the line. They all will respond when you call. The problem is it may take much longer.  Why did the City Manager put out a memo telling officers that they better be careful about what they say.  Not only does this city government lie, and have the backing of Merkey, but they make sure everyone else is silenced.

  6. I have never responded to a blog or made any other comment on line; but I am compelled to do so at this time because of the unfair treatment the police and firefighters have received at the hands of the San Jose City Council and the citizens of this city.

      When we have a biased media, our democracy is threaten. Over the years, the guardian of our republic has been a free and impartial press. Unfortunately, those days are over.  The media covering this issue of police and firefighter pay and benefits have overwhelmingly been in favor of significant reductions in this compensation. Because of that, most citizens of San Jose have been prejudicially influenced to support the city council’s side of this argument without hearing the other side.

      If one would view this issue through unbiased eyes, he/she would see that the city of San Jose has spent millions of dollars on flashy, feel good projects like purchasing land for a baseball stadium that may never be built, or allocating millions for expensive ethnic community centers that serve a small portion of the population and are rarely used. These are popular projects that help to harvest favorable votes at election time but cost the city money that it doesn’t have.  How do you make up the deficit?  Cut the benefits of your brave police and firefighters.

      Oh! these benefits exceed that of ordinary citizens? Yes they may, and yes they should.  How many citizens go to work each day having to wear a bullet-proof vest—who kiss their kids goodbye on their way to work not knowing if they will ever see them again—who must confront ghastly scenes and events that none of us will, thankfully, ever have to witness in our lives—or, those who willingly risk their own lives by running into burning buildings or fighting marauding gangs of thugs in order to save the lives of strangers. These things are worth something more than a simple paycheck.  Have the people who voted to reduce police and firefighter compensation taken the time to research the fact that former police officers and firefighters suffer more serious life altering injuries and average shorter lives than those in other professions? That is worth something.

      The next time you call a police officer or firefighter to help you, remember that the person who comes to your assistance has been told that you don’t think they’re worth their pay.

    • Could not have stated it better!  Having been there, witnessed numerous victims of violence (deceased) and looked at dead officers killed in the line of duty. I wonder why we are thrown under the bus with this pension issue. 

      Started at $12.30 an hour.  And worked for 30 years.

      Survive on a low pension.  PO and city makes it out to believe we all make 100K + plus, get free medical and bonus checks.  You need to work 30 years to make 90 %. 

      Total BS! Majority of employees work 20 years.  Most pay 4K+ medical benifits (just if your healthy), dental, visual, before taxes.

      Not the case, and next year medical will jump to a new high for retirees on fixed monthly checks.  Thank you Measure B, and if the Mayor calls for a fiscal emergeny, we will lose a huge chunk of our retirement pay.

      I feel sorry for any new, want to be city employee (Measure W), God Bless you and your family. I suggest you look for employment else where!

      Most good, outstanding city employees are leaving.

      PO, your lies and comments about fellow council members are a new time low.

      But then again, you alien yourself with the biggest lier of all, Chuck!

      • I wonder why we are thrown under the bus with this pension issue. 

        Well… Let’s see here then Rick..

        About $1bn spent on the new city hall, another $4bn in RDA debt.. You can fire employees, but unless you declare bankruptcy, you can’t fire debt.

        • Debt is your real enemy highlander.  Do not work with, nor support the candidates that are tied to those that created it.

          This is part of the reason why I support Rose.  One candidate in that race had way to many ties with people that have no idea what it’s like to actually struggle daily like we do.  The ones that created said debt.

          The idea that we would have a second round of council blindly following their agenda of their “fearless” leader, creating even more debt to serve themselves, is what really scared me.

          You should come down for a beer sometime.  There’s nothing to be won from this year of politics/campaigns but I’ve thought of a long term strategies that will work. 2015 will be your year, nothing I wish to divulge here.

    • Some of us agree with you. The method in which the Mayor and Council majority have handled this matter is unforgivable.
      Most will agree that some form of pension reform is necessary. What was not necessary was decimating the city work force, destroying employee morale, and making our neighborhoods much less safe.
      Any city employee who can leave is doing so as fast as possible. Those who can’t leave are counting the days until they can leave.
      I never thought a mayor could leave more wreckage than Gonzales did but Reed is making him look pretty good.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *