Police Officers Threaten to Quit If the Public Keeps Demanding Accountability
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Faced with an armed assailant at the Parkland school shooting in 2018, sheriff’s deputy Josh Stambaugh ran away and hid while children were gunned down. He was later fired for his lack of action, but last month arbitrators ruled that Stambaugh must be rehired by the sheriff’s department, and he will likely receive more than $100,000 in back pay. In 2018, at the time of his firing, Stambaugh earned $152,000 in base pay and overtime. It looks like he’ll soon be back on the payroll “protecting and serving” the community.
When faced with unarmed suspects, however, some police officers are quite a bit more enthusiastic. For example, when Mesa, Arizona, officer Philip Brailsford gunned down a crawling, sobbing, and unarmed man in a hotel hallway, he paid no price beyond losing his job. He was acquitted in the shooting and was soon thereafter rehired by the police department so he could claim a $31,000-per-year-for-life pension.
It is cases like these which help explain the growing popularity of police reform efforts in recent years. The public is becoming increasingly aware of the fact that police don’t face sanctions for doing nothing to protect the public from violence. Indeed, it’s even a well-established legal principle in this country that police are under no obligation to protect the taxpayers. Meanwhile, when police open fire on unarmed members of the public, officers frequently walk free, and some even continue to get paid.
Some of this is a result of aggressive police unions, which make it extremely difficult to fire law enforcement officers like Stambaugh. State laws also have been enacted to protect police from any personal liability, far above and beyond what is enjoyed by any worker in the private sector. In short, the deck has long been stacked in favor of both police agencies and individual police officers.
In response to incidents like those involving Stambaugh and Brailsford, and countless similar cases, Colorado in 2020 passed new police reform measures. The legislation is designed to end police immunity in some cases, to mandate the use of body cameras, limit when an officer can shoot a fleeing suspect, and rein in police unions.
As we’ve noted here at mises.org, many of these reforms should have been enacted long ago.
But many police officers are apparently less than thrilled with the reforms, and police agencies are claiming they’ve been unfairly targeted, while “warning” the public that few people will now want to become law enforcement officers.
In August, for example, the Denver Post reported that more than two hundred law enforcement officers in the state had retired or resigned since the new police reform law had passed. It was strongly implied that much of this was a result of the law’s passage.
The Post article contends many law enforcement officers are quitting especially because they object to potentially being held personally liable for misconduct. The state’s reform allows for officers to be sued personally and held liable for 5 percent of any judgment or settlement against them or $25,000, whichever is less.
“I don’t want myself and my family at risk,” one police officer—a veteran who’s enjoyed a taxpayer-funded paycheck for thirty years—complained. A sheriff’s deputy claimed police are leaving because they’re being unfairly targeted by “politics” and lamented, “Who wants to be a cop anymore?”
Meanwhile, the Durango Herald, a paper in southern Colorado, reports that police say the new accountability law is “too much for them and their families.”
But there is unlikely to be a shortage of police due to “too much” accountability.
In the case of Durango, for instance, local police supervisors note “enrollment numbers are up despite current liability concerns. Last year, there were 16 or 17 cadets, but there are 20 or 22 people enrolled for the fall.” And the Post story admits the number of separations statewide is only "slightly higher" than the average. The total also included officers who were fired.
Moreover, men and woman who work in private security have never enjoyed the sorts of special legal protections that police do. This is in spite of the fact that private security work may be even more hazardous than police work. Yet, somehow, these private firms manage to find willing workers.
Nationwide, the median annual pay for police officers is well above the median overall wage. According to a 2015 report from the Marshall Project, “In 25 of 50 states, [law enforcement officers] 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.”
Nor is police work remarkably dangerous. Law enforcement isn’t in the top twenty dangerous professions and is less dangerous work than being a crossing guard, a truck driver, or a farm worker. That is, police work often pays more than many jobs that are more dangerous.
Whether or not these comparisons apply to specific police departments and sheriff's departments in Colorado depends on local conditions, of course. But claims that police officers will be forced to quit en masse as a result of added accountability fit into a dubious national narrative. In this narrative police departments will lose their most heroic members because the police are being unfairly targeted by a public that doesn't properly appreciate them.
As Slate reported last week:
Law enforcement officials have met calls for defunding police and protests against police violence with an implicit threat: be careful what you wish for. More officers are quitting in frustration at the lack of respect, police officials often tell the press, and public safety will surely suffer. This summer, reports of cops quitting en masse have popped up across the country: Colorado, North Carolina, Georgia, Illinois, and New York City, a major center of the 2020 demonstrations.
But there's as of yet no evidence that a mass exodus of officers will happen or is likely to happen. After all, many of the separations we hear about are officers who are retiring, and many of these were hired during the "hiring spree" in police departments during the 1990s. It's now been more than twenty-five years for many of these officers, and it's only natural that they're now more than happy to retire as policing faces more scrutiny. Staff members who need to show up to earn a living, on the other hand, may find that private sector jobs—or other kinds of government employment—don't exactly come with all the perks of being a police officer.
Nor should it be assumed fewer police officers will mean higher crime. After all, the data shows that in spite of more officers and bigger budgets in recent decades police agencies haven't actually improved their performance.
But if police reforms such as those in Colorado are causing some officers to quit, it would seem that's all to the good. Those officers who are most adamant about quitting when faced with added accountability are exactly the ones we'd want to leave. Those who assume they're most likely to be on the losing end of a police brutality case aren't exactly the sorts of people we need to stick around.