How Much Policing Do We Need?

Like many townships in the Tri-State area, the police department takes a huge bite out of Orangetown’s annual budget. It’s been this way for decades, largely because of the power of the Rockland County Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the local arm of the New York City Police Benevolent Association, one of the most powerful unions in the country. But with state and local economies devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic, Orangetown’s 2021 budget talks beginning this fall will expose a hard truth; the current cost of policing in Orangetown is unsustainable.

The allotted 2020 tab for the Orangetown Police Department, which serves a community of approximately 50,000 people, is roughly $25 million. Let that sink in for a moment. A suburban town with little violent crime pays $25 million a year for policing. That’s about one third of the annual town budget. By comparison, parks and recreation, youth programs, a substance abuse council, the Blue Hill and Broadacres golf courses and services for veterans and the aging combined were allotted about $5 million in 2020.

Close to half of the $25 million goes to salaries and benefits for police personnel: 83 sworn officers, 25 auxiliary officers, ten stenographers and radio dispatchers, and to the pensions, medical, dental and hospitalization benefits for an undisclosed number of retired officers. According to a 2017 report by the Empire Center, a think tank compiling municipal employee compensation information in the mid-Hudson area, Orangetown had the fourth highest paid police employees in Rockland County and Rockland had the highest paid police officers in the state. Nine out of ten of the highest paid municipal employees in the region were Rockland police officers, the top earner being a Ramapo officer pulling in over $440,000.

The town board has been forced into arbitration several times with the Rockland County PBA over pay increases and other benefits, arguing that taxpayers can’t be squeezed any further, but arbitration boards are approved by the PBA and historically settle in favor of police unions. In addition, with “a rising tide floats all boats” ethos, PBA negotiators point to Clarkstown, Ramapo and Spring Valley as justification for Orangetown’s salary increases and other contractual demands.

Underpinning all is that police unions are notoriously resistant to change and fiercely supportive of their members. Theirs is a combative attitude; police are underappreciated and mayhem will reign without them. Many residents of predominantly white communities such as Orangetown buy into this idea – police keep our communities safe, right?

But David Bayley, a respected scholar of policing, writes in his book Police for the Future, “The police do not prevent crime. This is one of the best kept secrets of modern life. Experts know it, the police know it, but the public does not know it. Yet the police pretend that they are society’s best defense against crime and continually argue that if they are given more resources, especially personnel, they will be able to protect communities against crime. This is a myth.”

According to state crime statistics, incidents of violent and property crime are much lower in Orangetown than in other New York regions, and there’s been a downward trend in crime for the last 16 years. So crime isn’t a big problem in Orangetown. But there are other problems. One fifth of Orangetown’s residents are over 65; many on fixed incomes, opiate abuse has killed dozens of residents in the last five years, food pantries are bustling and taxpayers are hurting. When so many are suffering, how does the Rockland County PBA justify the six figure salaries, numerous fringe benefits and hefty retirement packages for Orangetown’s police officers? It may be time for the sclerotic Rockland County PBA to take its knee off the town’s neck.