Editor’s Note: The following article addresses an ongoing debate: Are local police departments in California where pension reforms have been enacted, San Diego and San Jose in particular, losing officers and new hires faster than they can replace them because of these reforms? Readers of this article are encouraged to also read the response posted on the San Diego Police Officers Association’s Facebook page, along with this tweet, and this tweet, posted in response by a VP for the San Diego Police Officers Association.
Debates over the facts, assumptions, and moral issues envelop literally every facet of public sector compensation and benefits, but a few things should stand out. For example, San Diego is paying pensions to its retirees with 25 years or more of service that are significantly more than they are paying in base salary to their active officers and detectives. There’s something wrong with that picture, whether or not the pension fund is adequately funded – it is not – and whether or not, overall, San Diego’s active police officers are underpaid.
Over the past several months, San Diego media outlets have issued a flurry of news reports asserting that San Diego police officers are underpaid and that this is “why the department is losing officers.”
There’s just one problem. The facts don’t support this narrative.
Yes, 162 San Diego police officers left the force in Fiscal Year 2014, but only a handful went on to other departments. Additionally, 160 new hires were made, resulting in a net loss of two officers in a force of 1,836.
Of the 162 who left, only 17 — or just 10 percent — left the San Diego PD for another police force. 90 percent of those who left did so for retirement, medical retirement or miscellaneous reasons. Last year, San Diego lost less than 1 percent of its officers to other agencies.
The main driver of attrition is found in what is waiting for police officers in retirement – DROP payments that can top $500,000 and ongoing retirement payouts that are often higher than their current base pay.
According to Transparent California, in 2013, the average San Diego police officer retiree who had at least 25 years of service credit prior to retirement received an annual pension benefit of $94,425. This excludes chiefs and assistant chiefs, which would raise the average further. The average years of service for these retirees was only 28.78, suggesting that many police officers take advantage of the ability to retire as young as 50 and still receive their maximum pension benefits.
A further breakdown of this data by job title provides even more insight into why so many police officers are retiring from the SDPD. In the City’s study claiming its police officers are underpaid, it reported the average base pay for a SDPD “Police Officer I or II” to be $62,598. The average pension for retired Police Officer I or II was $76,586 in 2013, or over 20 percent more than the average salary.
A similar comparison for the positions of detective, lieutenant, and captain shows that pensions are routinely higher than average base pay.
Part of the popular narrative is correct: Police officers are leaving the San Diego Police Department for higher pay. It’s just that they’re finding that higher pay in retirement, not in competing departments.
The U-T San Diego reported that half of San Diego police officers will be eligible for retirement by 2017. Should the SDPD find themselves facing a legitimate staffing crisis at that time, it will be because of a system that offers virtually no incentive for an officer to continue working past the age of 50, not the allure of higher paying jobs elsewhere.
Increasing pensionable compensation for current officers — something the city is considering to keep officers from leaving — will only compound the problem.
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About the Author: Robert Fellner is Research Director for TransparentCalifornia.com, a joint project of the California Policy Center and the Nevada Policy Research Institute.