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In Blue, But Not Blue-Collar

Why police are better paid than most workers.

Judging by their salt-of-the-earth lingo, their physically exhausting workday, and the grumbling they do about their bosses, police officers seem decidedly working class. As characterized by the tenaciously effective unions that represent them, the men and women in blue are as blue-collar as auto mechanics and plumbers.

Yet according to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, police officers in the United States are disproportionately well compensated relative to other salaried workers. In 25 of 50 states, they are paid 150 percent or more of the median salary – and that's not including their pension or the hefty sums they are provided for clocking overtime and buying equipment and uniforms.

Though police officers are more likely than other workers — salaried and hourly — to have college degrees, their higher pay is not solely attributable to education. Compare police with those other front-line public employees whose pay has been the subject of much recent contention: teachers. Though 93 percent of secondary teachers have a Bachelor's or an advanced degree, compared with only 33 percent of police officers, it is police officers who earn the higher base salary. The police make overtime, too, unlike those teachers who stay late to grade papers and plan tomorrow's lesson.

Below, a state-by-state look at how much police officers earn relative to median salary – and a few other likely explanations (theoretical, political, and historical) as to why their pay remains ample while wages, for many Americans, have leveled off or fallen.

1) Police officers are well paid because the work they do is unusually dangerous.

In labor economics, the idea of “compensating differentials” suggests that rates of pay should be higher for jobs that are unpleasant or dangerous.

Bill Spriggs, the chief economist for the AFL-CIO, one of whose affiliates is the International Union of Police Associations, says that this theory may explain cops' relatively higher compensation.

Wages, he says, are partly determined by "the revealed preference of workers … how much they have to be paid to accept greater risks."

Many other labor economists, such as Harvard's Gabriel Chodorow-Reich, agree that the relative hazard (and coinciding stress) of the profession – which, in turn, may lead to a relatively shorter career and therefore fewer years of earning income – may be part of the reason why the police are liberally compensated.

The risks inherent in policing have also been emphasized lately by police advocates, such as Patrick Lynch of the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. This past December, following the murders of two NYPD patrol officers, Lynch argued that the emerging national conversation about violent interactions with police must acknowledge that police “put themselves in danger” to keep the rest of us safe.

But is police work truly more dangerous?

Police officers do encounter the regular possibility of a violent interaction or death, and the attendant stress is surely considerable. But the Bureau of Labor Statistics also collects data on workplace injuries – and policing, by the numbers, does not rank among the most dangerous professions.

Geert Dhondt, a labor economist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an expert on the growth of police wages, points out that, “There are any number of jobs that are far more hazardous than being a police officer, but are not nearly as well-remunerated.”

Loggers, roofers, truck drivers, electrical workers and many other manual laborers confront significantly more daily risk than do police officers, yet they are paid less – tens of thousands of dollars less, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

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2) Unions, unions, unions.

Many of the apparent reasons for cops’ higher wages are ultimately attributable to the effectiveness of their unions.

For instance, police work is one of the few professions that gets paid a salary and overtime (most jobs that offer overtime pay are hourly jobs) – but that perk did not come about on its own. Says Dhondt: “That was negotiated through collective bargaining.” Similarly, cops may get paid more because they may work a shorter career, and part of their salary is for retirement. But that too was negotiated and achieved by the unions.

Even “the idea that police work is disproportionately risky,” Dhondt argues, is largely the result of the unions’ effective public information campaigns. “The driving force behind wages is relative bargaining power, not any of these other characteristics,” he concludes. “And the police have it...while many of today's other workers don't."

In an era of declining membership in unions and, as a result, widespread pay cuts for municipal workers, police officers’ unions remain strong. Their salaries, for the most part, remain off the table.

Even in New Jersey and Wisconsin, where governors (and possible presidential candidates) Chris Christie and Scott Walker have declared war on teachers’ and other unions, the possibility of lowering base salaries for police has hardly been mentioned.

“There’s a powerful police-union lobby, and they are very effective, with many political enablers,” says Jeffrey Fagan, a law professor at Columbia University and an expert on all things police. “Because of the War on Crime/War on Terror discourse, as well as the discourse on the dangers of being a police officer, the unions and police supporters can make a moral claim to a pay premium.”

3) Most other Americans are not making as much as they used to.

“This discrepancy is not five years old,” says Dhondt. “It’s been building for quite some time. And the data have as much to do with the falling-out of everyone else’s wages as the rise of police salaries.”

Beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a pair of national trends emerged simultaneously. First, wages regressed (and have remained stagnant), in part because of the successful union-busting of presidents Reagan and Bush. Second, “tough-on-crime” priorities began to dictate state and local budgets.

It was a one-two punch for police officers earning increasingly more than their peers, says Mathieu Dufour, another labor economist at John Jay. “At the same time that everybody else’s pay had stagnated,” says Dufour, “cities and states were investing in the professionalization and even the militarization of law enforcement, including maintaining, sometimes increasing their wages.”

That chasm expanded as President Bill Clinton ramped up the extra budgeting for law enforcement, while embracing a new brand of globalization that left some other types of workers in the dust. And pay rates for cops stayed high after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, says Fagan, who points out that the notion of paying cops less (even as so many states faced budget crises in the 2000s) was unthinkable within the “9/11 halo.”

The comparatively higher pay of today's police officers, then, may not be determined by objective market factors, but rather by the fact that, in frightening times, police officers have gained bargaining leverage while most other workers, in a globalizing, increasingly top-heavy economy, have lost it.