How Much Will I Get Paid…Really
Sergeant Betsy Brantner Smith
When I finally procured my criminal justice employment, where I would eventually spend the majority of my law enforcement career, I was so thrilled to receive that letter of appointment that I didn’t bother to find out how much money I’d be taking home each week. I’d been involved in the testing process for months, I was 21, single, still in college, and working at an aerobics studio where I made minimum wage. I was used to supporting myself on next to nothing (I ate a lot of Ramen noodles and peanut butter sandwiches), so salary was not really an issue. I was more interested in how long I would be in the academy, what kind of pistol they were going to issue me, and how soon did I get to make my first arrest?
That was nearly thirty years ago, and today’s generation is a bit savvier and a lot more interested in money. Many police recruits are older, they may have families to support, college loans to pay off, or they may be transitioning from the military or another profession where they were used to a steady income. Although no one ever got rich from being a cop, before you go after that dream job in law enforcement, its not a bad idea to say, “Show me the money!”
The average starting salary for a rookie cop in the United States is about $40,000.00. Having said that, it’s important to understand that this fluctuates wildly depending on many, many factors. Cops in large cities like Los Angeles and Chicago are generally going to get paid more than officers in Moss Point, Mississippi or Show Low, Arizona, but don’t forget that the cost of living is also markedly different in each of these regions. Most federal law enforcement officers make more money than rural sheriff’s deputies, but the feds also have the very real possibility of multiple transfers during their careers. Departments with union contracts generally have more secure pay raises than those in right-to-work states, but union-controlled public safety organizations have their own set of conundrums…just ask anyone from California.
What about Benefits?
There’s much more to compensation than just a paycheck. These are the types of questions you should be prepared to ask: Does the agency pay for the academy or do you have to pay your own way? Do you get paid while you’re in the academy? Does the department pay for your uniforms and equipment or do you have to foot the bill yourself? Do you get a take-home car? How much do you have to pay for health benefits, life insurance, and other necessities? Do they offer flexible spending accounts for daycare and medical expenses not covered by insurance? Some departments also offer college tuition reimbursement, pay incentives for foreign language skills, higher education, or specialties such as field training, K-9, investigations, SWAT, and the opportunity to work off duty jobs.
Overtime and Off Duty Employment
I’ve never met a cop with more than two years on the job who didn’t either work lots of overtime or have what we call a “side job.” There were officers on my own department who were able to double their paychecks consistently with overtime pay. Generally, overtime pay is either governed by federal labor law or your union contract; most cops make additional money by working extra shifts, going to court, or volunteering for specialty assignments such as local festivals, parades, high school football games, any place the community demands extra police presence. Some agencies also have “cash jobs,” usually managed by the union or the benevolent association, which are sanctioned by the agency but the pay comes separate from your regular paycheck; these are usually security details at places like teen clubs, shopping centers, and even large funerals. While teaching in Salt Lake City recently I met some academy trainers, all full time local cops, who worked part time as security guards at a gated community near the city. It was great money, the duty was low stress, and these guys had the opportunity to help their citizens feel safer; a win/win for everyone.
Promotions, Cost of Living, and Retirement
Starting salary should not be the only pay factor you look at when researching a department. What is the raise structure, are they periodic “step” raises, or are they based entirely on merit? Where does cost of living factor into salary increases? If you get promoted, is the raise worth the change in status? In my department, officers and sergeants received overtime pay, lieutenants did not, so as a senior sergeant I ended up making more money than a senior lieutenant, even though we often worked the same amount of hours. How much of your salary goes into a pension fund and who manages it? Do you have the opportunity to invest in other retirement funds, such as a deferred compensation fund? These are all great questions to ask your recruiter.
Don’t Fall Into Credit Traps
Generally speaking, even in today’s economy a police job is a pretty secure one, and predatory creditors know this. Don’t fall into the common trap of signing up for all those credit card and signature loan offers that come in the mail or your bank tries to sign you up for. Dr. Kevin Gilmartin, author of Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, emphasizes that police officers must control their “retail therapy,” resist the urge to go into debt, and learn to live within their means. I’ve known many police officers over the years who became so dependant on their overtime or side job incomes that when that extra money dried up, they nearly went bankrupt. Police work is stressful enough without having to worry about money.
This bottom line is this: If you’re going into this profession for the money, don’t bother. Law enforcement is a lifestyle, a profession, a calling; it’s not merely a way to earn a living. It can be a great way to support you and your family, it’s an adventure, it’s something different every day, and it’s definitely a career to be proud of; consider the financial rewards to be a bonus. Good luck!
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