Does Society Still Need Law Enforcement? If So, What Is It Worth?

What do our communities expect from their officers, and at what cost?

Police officer
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In 2012, Scranton, Pennsylvania, led by then-Mayor Chris Doherty, reduced pay for all police officers to minimum wage as part of a response to a city budget crisis. The move was short-lived, and officer ultimately received back pay—plus interest—but this incident and others like it does raise a question about the value of law enforcement.

Earnings

The median pay for police and sheriff patrol officers as of May 2018 was about $61,000 annually, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics. When including detectives in the mix, those in the bottom 10% earned less than $36,000 and those in the top 10% earned more than $106,000. The median pay for all occupations $38,000.

Overall, this means median pay for police officers is about 60% more than the median pay for the entire workforce. Their median pay is comparable to that of teachers in public high schools.

Other Expenses

Pay isn’t the only expense for municipalities to fund police forces. Purchasing and maintaining equipment from vehicles to safety gear also adds expenses, leading to police budgets often taking up nearly half of many city budgets overall.

Percentages vary depending on the size of a city. For example, New York City, with its vast infrastructure, spent less than 10% of its total city revenue on police, as of 2018, but for smaller cities, operating even a small police force takes up a significantly larger portion of public funds.

Police Coverage

Smaller municipalities with limited budgets sometimes operate without their own police departments and instead rely on law enforcement from neighboring communities, county sheriff departments, or state police. Specifics vary by state, but most smaller townships are under the jurisdiction of county departments, and cities and villages are expected to provide their own law enforcement.

Cities and villages can enter into partnerships with other cities or villages or with the county to provide patrols and other police coverage. For example, a city might pay a fee to another municipality to be included in that municipality’s police coverage. State police typically are available for assistance as well.

This kind of partnership can save money, but the tradeoff is a loss of local control. Priorities for police departments are dictated by their primary constituencies. Neighboring police chiefs answer to their own city governments and city residents and naturally will give priority to their needs. Sheriffs typically are elected at a county level and need to prioritize more than just one community. State police have even broader responsibilities.

History

The concept of policing in America is relatively new, and the history of the modern police force is barely 150 years old. However, communities always have been policing themselves in some manner for thousands of years.

Some measure of law enforcement always has been required to keep the peace, maintain order and provide for free movement and furtherance of commerce. That need is only amplified in today's ever-advancing society. Almost universally, it is now accepted that police forces are a necessary component of any modern society.

Across the nation and around the world, societies are demanding better-educated officers who can think critically and use intelligence, discretion, and communication first. Any use of control is nearly instantly criticized and critiqued in favor of peaceful resolutions over demonstrations of force. The level of scrutiny officers are held to is only increasing as technological advances, such as body-worn cameras, change the way police officers do business.