Public Policy
  Analysis, opinion & ideas from Steve Harry



The policeman is not your friend

January 17, 2018; updated February 6


Good cop, bad cop. It's not just an interrogation strategy. Police are necessary and often heroic, but while they may save your life, they are picking your pocket.


Expensive pensions. Pensions and health care for for retired police and firefighters are impoverishing municipalities. At $680 million, the city of Lansing's underfunded pension and health care liability is one of the highest in Michigan, and although part of that is for other city retirees, the bulk is for retired public safety workers.


There are 48,459 households in Lansing, which means each household's share of that $680 million is $14,032.


In recent years, changes in pension plans have been negotiated for new employees, but for the next 22 years, Lansing police and firefighters will be retiring with a 3.2% multiplier and a 2-year FAC period. They can retire at any age after 25 years, which means many retire before age 50. (In 2011, the IAFF pushed hard to reduce the service requirement to 20 years.)


In its August 10 story "Overtime spikes pensions for dozens of Lansing police, fire retirees" the Lansing State Journal found that pensions for 35% of 160 retirees exceeded 90% of base pay. The life expectancy of a 50-year-old male is 82, so those pensions will be received for an average of 32 years - 7 years longer than spent on the job.


Special bargaining rights. All public employees in Michigan have collective bargaining rights, but if a police or firefighter union doesn't like the employer's offer, they can call in a state arbitrator and try to persuade him to side with the union. This is made possible by Public Act 312. As one long-time police officer told me when I suggested repealing that law, "I remember the days of "Collective Begging" and choose not to go backwards in time." Apparently, collective bargaining is too much trouble for public safety unions. Why waste time talking when you can get a state arbitrator to order your employer to give you a raise? I wrote a story about a 1997 arbitration in which the Ingham County's sheriff supervisors bargaining unit - represented by the Fraternal Order of Police - tricked the arbitrator into giving 8 of their members a $10,000 pension increase.


Civil asset forfeiture. Michigan "laws allow police to seize citizens' property if they suspect the property including homes, vehicles and cash was obtained through illegal activity. The police keep the property even when there is not enough evidence to charge the citizen with a crime." (Detroit Free Press, 5/19/2015) "Many law enforcement agencies rely on civil asset forfeiture to generate revenue by selling forfeited property. Michigan law does not require law enforcement to account for how forfeiture revenues are spent. (Michigan Capitol Confidential, 1/30/2017) They are required to report other information to the State Police, however. "Police agencies reported $15.2 million in cash and property seized over 11 months of 2016 . . . In about 10 percent of the 5,290 cases reported, no one was charged with the violation for which the forfeiture was authorized . . . (, 7/14/2017)


Civil asset forfeiture means free toys and money for police and sheriff departments. It is government-sanctioned theft. To discourage unwarranted seizures, any money and any proceeds from the sale of confiscated property should go into the state general fund rather than the coffers of the police department that seized it.


See 2/6/2018 story from Michigan Capitol Confidential, "Debate Heated On Ending Police Keeping Seized Property With No Conviction."


Elaborate funerals. Any line-of-duty death of a cop calls for an over-the-top funeral. There is the long procession of police cars passing under a U.S. flag suspended between 2 hook-and-ladder trucks. There's the helicopter fly-over. The bagpipers and the officers in dress blues and white gloves. The riderless horse. In Michigan, there is a standing police organization ready to jump in at a moment's notice to put together all the elements of the standard police funeral.

I've never been able to determine who pays for these spectacles. Are all the cops there on their own time? Or are they getting paid? State of Michigan employees can use sick leave to attend the funeral of a relative, but not the funeral of someone whose only relationship is being a member of the same profession. Even if they are their on their own time, they are not in their own cars. Is the government being reimbursed for use of publicly-owned vehicles? Hook-and-ladder trucks? Helicopters? That must get pretty expensive, not to mention that this equipment is unavailable for its intended use for the duration of the funeral. How much of the cost of these funerals is paid by taxpayers?


A public safety worker's death doesn't have to be from a heroic act to get a hero's funeral. He could get run down by down by a mentally ill person while collecting for a charity, or crash his car going 117 mph pursuing a speeder, or trip over his own nightstick. While 61 of the 125 line of duty police deaths in the U.S. in 2017 were murders - 5 by assault, 45 by gunfire, 1 stabbed, and 6 by vehicular assault - 25 were from automobile crashes and 13 were from heart attacks.


The purpose of these funerals and fallen officer memorials is to make the profession seem much more dangerous than it is so that the public and their elected representatives are reluctant to question what these public servants are costing us.


Citizen-funded PACs. The Police Officers Association of Michigan (POAM) PAC is 20th on the list of Michigan PACs who collected the most contributions for the period 1/1/2017-10/20/2017. POAM's total was $223,096. This union PAC is not funded by member dues. It preys on regular citizens, mostly elderly, by calling repeatedly and asking for small contributions. POAM contracts with the telemarketing firm Midwest Publishing of Phoenix, AZ to make the calls and over  90% of the money collected goes to Midwest. Here is the breakdown of POAM's expenditures in that 1/1/2017-10/20/2017 period:



Payments to Midwest Publishing




Contributions to candidates




Bank fees









I wrote a story about this in May 2016.


Government-provided life insurance. If a public safety worker dies in the line of duty, the federal government pays the family $350,079. The state of Michigan pays another $25,000. Taxpayers foot the bill.


Compare public safety workers to members of the military, who are actually employed by the federal government. Their survivors only get a $100,000 gratuity payment. Service members can get life insurance, but they have to pay the premiums. The maximum $400,000 coverage costs $28 a month.


Greed. It is human nature to take all you can get. Public safety workers get more because more is offered. They enjoy the the mystique of being heroes employed in a dangerous occupation. Police do get murdered more than most - 61 in 2017 - but that does not make theirs the most dangerous occupation. Police and firefighters are not even in the top 10. While 61 police were murdered in 2017, the other team fared much worse: 987 people were shot and killed by police last year.


Public perception of police and firefighters as our heroic protectors makes politicians want to been seen as their friends and supporters. They love to claim the endorsement of public safety unions and eagerly comply with their requests. In Michigan, that includes an exemption from the pension tax and exclusion from the law prohibiting wage increases while negotiations continue after a collective bargaining agreement has expired. 


There is nothing wrong with holding public safety workers in high regard and - within reason - honoring their sacrifices. But they are not that special and shouldn't receive special treatment when it comes to compensation. We must stop throwing money at them. Their compensation should be no more than required to attract qualified people.


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