A London police officer who faced off against knife-wielding terrorists with just his baton, officers who took on a suspect with an assault rifle during an attack on members of Congress in our nation’s capital, and an officer who continued to fight despite being stabbed in the neck at the Bishop International Airport in Flint, Michigan: These valiant efforts have those of us who work in public safety feeling both on high alert and in a retrospective mood. Such incidents put a spotlight on the sacrifices made by first responders, make us look back at transformative events in our careers and consider the future of our profession. When these types of tragedies and the resulting heroism demonstrated by officers coincide with legislation that seeks to strip benefits away from public safety employees, it can feel like a real slap in the face to the people who place themselves at risk every day to protect others.
Make no mistake – first responders place themselves in harm’s way daily, not only in emergencies, but also over their lifetimes through exposures to stresses and toxins that put them at a higher risk than the general public for a variety of diseases. Whether it’s working a night shift, conducting a traffic stop or taking on an active shooter, police work has been linked to a much higher risk of cardiovascular disease and cancers. (See previous LAAPOA articles “Why Cops Die Young,” Part 1 and Part 2.) Firefighters have a rate of mesothelioma double that of the U.S. population as a whole, and they are susceptible to many digestive, oral, respiratory and urinary cancers. The daily routine is only the least dramatic part of the dangers that officers and firefighters are faced with on the job.
Accidents and attacks are always possible when your job is to protect and serve. Just a couple of weeks ago, LAFD Firefighter Kelly Wong died after falling off a ladder during a training exercise. Historically, vehicle-related accidents claim the most police officers’ lives almost every year. Notably, in 2016, after years of bad press due to controversial officer-involved shootings, 66 officers were shot and killed – more than car, motorcycle and accidental vehicle strikes combined.
But no incident brings home the reality of public safety’s sacrifices more than 9/11, the day that took the lives of more first responders than any other event in American history: 343 NYFD firefighters, 23 NYPD officers and 37 police personnel from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey were killed. But of course, it didn’t stop there. Since that time, an additional 157 firefighters and 132 NYPD officers (as of the end of 2016) have died of 9/11-related illnesses from exposures to toxic dust during their recovery efforts at Ground Zero. A recent New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health (NYCOSH) study found that more than 5,700 survivors of the 9/11 first responder community currently have cancer.
Yet, unbelievably, despite the risks of serving the public, first responders have not only had to fight hard for gains in wages, health care and pensions, but those benefits are also under continual attack – at home in California, in states across the country and even at the national level.
“The assaults occur on every front: physical, mental, political and economic,” says Marshall McClain, president of LAAPOA. “We want people to know the challenges that we, as first responders, deal with on a daily basis, but also looking down the road.”
Many agencies, like the San Bernardino Police Department, are still recovering from the disastrous effects of the Great Recession, which decimated local public safety budgets and also helped lead to scapegoating of public employees for pension problems that were, in actuality, caused by poor fiscal management and planning by local governments.
While one of the latest attempts at eliminating cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) increases for California public employees by State Senator John Moorlach was killed in committee in April, we can be sure that he and his friends will be back in the future with new proposals aimed at increasing employee contributions to pensions, among other “reforms.” Even President’s Trump’s recent budget proposed increasing federal employee retirement contributions by 1% per year for the next six years and eliminating the Federal Employee Retirement System’s COLA for future employees.
Added to the criticism that has been heaped on police departments in the wake of officer-involved shootings, and increased scrutiny and vilification of individual officers in the media, these proposals hurt morale and recruitment efforts.
“At a time when agencies need the best and brightest candidates to serve as police officers and firefighters in our increasingly complicated and dangerous world, this is an issue of grave concern to the future of public safety,” says McClain. “As a society, we are morally obligated to take care of those who put themselves on the line to protect the public. Furthermore, from a purely practical standpoint, we must prioritize proper compensation and benefits so that the jobs can be filled. Under-resourced and understaffed agencies will ultimately cause human lives to be lost – not just public safety members, but civilians as well.”