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A letter to the American public: 3 common misconceptions about pay and rural policing

Wanting equitable wages for rural cops is not about greed or ingratitude, it’s just economics


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Every news cycle brings competing headlines: should we defund cops, or pay them more to halt the exodus of experienced officers? While big papers cover big cities, I’m here to remind the reader that rural police officers and police agencies aren’t exempt from the influence of inflation and market pressures. The same financial pressures that translate into problems with retention make an already-difficult field an even harder sell for recruiting.

In that case, what do West Virginia, Oklahoma, Florida, South Carolina, Arkansas and Georgia have in common? They all have bills pending to increase pay for (mostly state) law enforcement officers. While some of the raises are substantial, the effects on officer salary would be modest, partly because starting pay is so low now, and partly because it’s been a long time since the last pay boost. In Oklahoma, it would be the first raise troopers have seen in seven years.

Proposed pay increases for state troopers – many of whom live and patrol in relatively remote locations – are a concern for local agencies, which lose seasoned officers when nearby departments pay higher salaries. In response, a group of Arizona legislators drafted a bill that stipulates starting pay for deputy sheriffs cannot be more than 5% below the average salaries of the two top-paying law enforcement agencies in the county. Whether it passes or not, that lawmakers saw a need for such a bill raises a question: what assumptions are standing in the way of paying officers fairly (enough to keep them loyal and working hard) no matter where they work?

Since I write about small, rural and remote agencies, let’s answer that by addressing three common misconceptions about pay and rural policing.

1. Police work is a calling so cops who worry about pay are in it for the wrong reasons

It may be a calling, but most cops are not volunteers with lucrative day jobs. Having bills to pay and families to support does not negate a sense of mission, or mean that officers who want decent compensation are greedy. It means they’re normal humans, with a sense of responsibility for their families and personal obligations, as well as their communities.

Wanting to be able to participate in recreation is healthy and helps to manage stress, but even camping costs money. Wanting to be able to pay off debts, build up savings and provide for a child’s education is responsible, not mercenary. Wanting to rent or buy a house in a safe neighborhood is sensible, not pretentious.

Problems created by extremely low pay in law enforcement came under much-deserved scrutiny after the investigations in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, but the problems didn’t go away. Simplistic search results of national averages for police pay camouflage the very low pay factoring into a mean of about $60,000 a year. There are still plenty of places – hundreds, if not thousands of agencies – where officers are paid in the low 30s each year.

2. It costs less to live in rural areas, so low pay is fine

This one is simple: in a lot of rural places, it’s really expensive to live. Rural and remote policing takes place in and near tourist destinations like national parks, coastlines and ski resorts. Rural cops work in vast ranchlands, mountains and deserts that have become trendy rich-people playgrounds, driving up prices for buyers and renters. In many western states, where distances are huge and geography is hostile, there simply may not be housing as urban dwellers know it, affordable or otherwise. Rising rents and lack of availability force officers into commutes that devour ever-larger shares of their household budgets.

[RELATED: When housing costs hinder hiring]

In one example, Park County, Colorado covers more than 2,000 square miles, with only about 18,000 residents. The sheriff needs 18 deputies; he has eight. A recent pay hike increased deputy starting pay to $48,000 per year but the average house in Park County costs close to $600,000, and there is nearly no multi-family housing. Chiefs and sheriffs in Colorado and Idaho are cutting overnight patrols, launching fundraisers for basic equipment like ballistic vests, and going to war with their county or city administrations over inadequate budgets. Those constraints overflow into lagging pay for officers, with few adjustments for cost of living, let alone raises.

Small increases are promptly consumed by higher employee costs for healthcare coverage and retirement contributions. Smaller employee pools and fewer providers drive up insurance premiums, keeping officers from ever seeing an actual increase on the pay stub. The more remote the place, the more expensive are groceries, car repairs, gas prices and medical care. Smaller towns also make it harder to find jobs for spouses and to find child care when the jobs are available.

3. The benefits make up for the pay, though

While that was probably true once, it’s not anymore.

Until the past 30 years, law enforcement was considered a stable, if not high-dollar career path with a brass ring at the end in the form of a modest but dignified retirement. Healthcare was a given. Now healthcare as a benefit still technically exists, but the costs of premiums fall more and more on the officer rather than the employer. Once upon a time, healthcare benefits that covered the officer and dependents were a given; now it is common for only the employee to be covered. Coverage for dependents is “available” with the premium deducted from payroll, sometimes subsidized by the agency, but often at full price. When that is the case, dependents may be barred from shopping on the ACA market for more affordable options because, technically, they already “have insurance available.”

And retirements? Those still exist, but they’re not the Golden Parachute the public thinks they are. Even in a solid defined-benefit system, they pay only a percentage of base pay; the lower the base pay, the lower will be the pension, and many law enforcement officers are not eligible to participate in Social Security.

Some states are experimenting with hybrid or defined-contribution (401K style) retirement plans as cost-cutting measures, and the change is negatively affecting retention. As recruiting lags and seasoned officers leave, taking institutional knowledge with them, Alaska and Kentucky are reworking their retirement plans. What they lose outweighs the savings. Likewise, Utah cut its retirement percentage to a meager 35% of base pay after 25 years, instead of the previous 50% at 20 years. The state’s first responder agencies have paid the price in turnover, as burned-out and disappointed workers left for other states or other fields. Like Kentucky and Alaska, Utah’s legislators are backtracking, hoping to stem the hemorrhage.

It’s not greed or ingratitude, it’s just economics

Law enforcement as a profession differs from urban to rural areas only in scale; in all settings, the job has become more complex. Training and education requirements are higher, and there are increasingly fraught interactions with the public at very high legal and social stakes. It’s no longer a career field where a high school graduate can learn on the job and make a solid middle-class living.

Instead, we’re getting a real-time economics lesson in compensating wage differentials: jobs that are unpleasant, that require higher skill levels, or that are dangerous, require higher levels of pay to attract enough people to do the jobs. It really is that simple. Officers in lower-paying localities, with marginal benefits and variable leadership, can read headlines announcing Target’s new starting pay and wonder if they are making a wise choice. When Walmart raises starting pay for truck drivers to $110,000 per year, it’s easy to see how a job requiring a gun, a Kevlar vest and the possibility of getting prosecuted for a mistake might seem less attractive than it used to be. There may not be Target stores in the country, but truck drivers can live there if they want to.

Market pressures are squeezing current officers and applicants alike. The need to adjust pay scales arises from “a failure of consideration” – in other words, what was once an acceptable level of compensation has so decreased in value that officers simply are no longer willing to do the work for the same rate of pay. In fact, they can’t, and they’re voting with their feet.

NEXT: A letter to the American public: Here’s what real police reform looks like

Kathleen Dias writes features and news analysis on topics of concern to law enforcement professionals serving in rural and remote locations. She uses her background in writing, teaching and marketing to advocate for professional levels of training and equipment for rural officers, open channels of communication for isolated departments, and dispel myths about rural policing. She’s had a front-row seat observing rural agencies – local, state and federal – from the Sierra foothills to California’s notorious Emerald Triangle, for more than 30 years.