Low Wage Concerns Are Not The Ties That Bind at Zuccotti Park
On Sunday, Jack Adamo stood at the corner of Broadway and Cedar Street, one of the ways into Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, holding a hand-written sign: "Police Protecting and Serving The Shit Out of You!"
New York City's police officers are now tasked with patrolling the Occupy Wall Street protests, but they are also precisely the sorts of figures who are the objects of the movement's organizational engine as it seeks to broaden into a mass event. New York City cops are union members whose wages generally do not pay for the cost of living inside the city they patrol.
In conversation with police officers near Wall Street in recent days, few expressed solidarity with the protesters, even as many acknowledged they are, like much of the country, struggling to pay their bills. Most expressed resignation that they have a job to do, palatable or not.
“In a few words, it’s a real mess," said one officer standing on the periphery of the park Sunday watching protesters chant. The officer declined to give his name because of a standing order that bars officers from talking to reporters at the park.
"They got a bail out, we got left out," a man standing a few feet away screamed with one fist raised in the air. Soon, other protesters joined the chant.
Billionaire businessman and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has described the protesters as "misguided" and called their critique of economic conditions simplistic. Last week, Bloomberg refused to criticize a police officer’s decision to pepper spray a protester. And, Bloomberg indicated on his weekly radio show that protesters will not be allowed to permanently occupy Zuccotti Park.
Earlier this year, JPMorgan Chase Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon also made his support for New York police plain with a laudatory cliché. In a statement about a $4.6 million donation from JPMorgan to the New York City Police Foundation, Dimon said officers “put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe.”
The donation is the largest in the nonprofit New York Police Foundation’s history, but it came months before the protest in Zuccotti Park began, as part of a series of contributions JPMorgan Chase agreed to make beginning in 2010. The money will be used to buy new laptops for 1,000 patrol cars and other police equipment. The Foundation is not a part of the police department. JP Morgan did not respond to requests for comment about the donation or its timing.
Still, some protesters at Zuccotti Park Sunday described the donation as an attempt to curry favor and encourage a crack down on the protests. The contribution seemed to only add fuel to the fire of economic discontent. The donation was so outrageous to Roxanne Piccoli, a New Jersey community college student, that she showed up Sunday with a new sign: “Last Week, JP Morgan Chase Made the Largest Donation in History $4.6 Million to the NYPD!!” In the span of 10 minutes, six passersby asked her if the information on the sign was true. Piccoli referred them to JPMorgan's website, which doesn't identify the date of the donation.
“I don’t know anything about that donation,” said a second officer at the park on Sunday who declined to give his name. “We’re here to do a job. We have orders, pure and simple. And we certainly aren’t out here getting rich.”
The officer lives with his parents in Suffolk County because the city is too expensive for someone earning about $42,000 a year, he said. His pay is just enough to cover his student loans, gas, insurance and taxes. With what is left, he saves a little and helps his parents -- his father is a retired police officer -- with household bills, the officer said.
"How I’m going to pay my bills," the officer said. "That’s what concerns me. Trust me, moaning about what some people make and acting like a lunatic isn’t going to change anything."
The New York City Police Department did not respond to a request for comment by deadline about police pay or the share of officers who live inside the city. But, the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, a union, did.
A first-year police officer earns $41,975 a year, said Albert O’Leary, a spokesman for the NYC PBA. Six years later, that same officer will hit the maximum base pay ceiling for New York City police officers, $76,488.
That is considerably lower than the $102,000 maximum base pay earned by police officers in Long Island’s Suffolk County and less than the $96,000 police officers at the top of the Port Authority’s base pay scale earn. New York police officers are among the lowest paid law enforcement officials working in major cities across the country, O'Leary said.
Police officer pay is part of the reason that a little over half of New York’s police officers live somewhere inside the five boroughs and the remainder somewhere just outside the city, O’Leary said.
Harvey Katowitz was a New York City police officer for 27 years. While he was a part of the city’s police force, Katowitz lived in suburban Rockland County. It was the only way that he could afford a reasonable size home and to send his children to decent schools, he said. In 1995, he was a captain working in the Bronx when he retired and moved to lower-cost Charlotte, N.C..
"That’s why I don’t doubt that there are some officers out there that are conflicted or who feel a little sympathy for this cause," Katowitz said. "We know what working for a living and working for low wages means. But they (police officers) have a job to do and they have to do it."
Katowitz worries that police officers will be cast as willing foils trying to limit the protests or injure protesters for sport. Katowitz is particularly concerned about videos circulating around the web in which a New York City Police officer is shown pepper spraying protesters. He doubts that the people behind the videos captured everything that happened before and after the spraying. And, he thinks most people misunderstand police.
“Most police officers give you the impression they are very conservative,” said Katowitz, who is also president of the Charlotte branch National 10-13 Club, a reference to police radio code for officer in need of assistance. There are about 250 retired NYPD officers in the Charlotte area. Katowitz spends a lot of time with them. “But when you deal with social ills day in and day out, you are much more sympathetic. Yes, police officers tend to be law and order. But lot of us are also pretty liberal.”
Adamo, the man behind the anti-police sign, has a 9-to-5 job at an advertising agency in Manhattan. He joined the protesters in the park after work a few nights last week, then camped out with the group over the weekend. He thinks the police are monitoring protesters too closely.
“They should be out solving real crimes," said Adamo. “But these guys are probably worried they won’t get their paltry pensions if they don’t follow orders. They have to be."
Another officer working at the park on Sunday, who also declined to give his name, was stationed on a sidewalk along Broadway. His task: keeping the protesters inside the park and the sidewalk clear so that people could pass. At one end of the block a man held a sign that read “Ignore me. Go Shopping," a few feet away a woman bounced a placard that read “Expose the Power Structure Wake Up," above her head.
“What I’m concerned about is what kind of education are my kids getting at their school," said the officer, who also declined to give his name. "And, how come the crack war is over but kids are still dying in shootouts on Flatbush Ave.? That’s what concerns me."
The officer works in community affairs all over Manhattan but lives in Brooklyn. He can afford to live in the city because he bought a house in his neighborhood long before it gentrified, he said.
The officer, who earns about $60,000 a year, thinks most of the people in the park would make better use of their time if they put down their signs and got involved in grassroots community improvement, he said.
"There are a lot of walls around New York City covered in graffiti that could use some paint," he said.
Despite his limited pay and the fact that he hopes to rely heavily on his pension in retirement, the excesses of Wall Street aren’t something the officer worries about, he said.
"Up, down, sideways, it doesn’t matter what happens with that pension," he said. "I’ll find a way to survive. That’s what my family has always done. To tell you the truth, I think a lot of these people out here just need to wake up to that reality. You have to take care of yourself. If you do, you'll be fine."
But for some police retirees, leaving what most call, "the job," has ushered in an economic reality that is difficult to manage. Arthur Onody is president of the Hudson Valley branch 10-13 Association. Onody retired in 1988. He considers himself lucky to receive pension payments that amount to about $35,000 a year.
“When I worked those protest details up at the Columbia [University] sit-ins, I didn’t agree with those people,” said Onody, about protests that took place in the 1960s. “But I did my job. I assume that the guys out there at the park right now may be in pretty much the same situation. Of course, they also may not know what a New York City Police retirement really looks like.”
There are members of the Hudson Valley association who whose pensions pay out as little as $13,000 a year, Onody said. Police officers are also eligible for social security he said. But almost everyone has to work or chooses to do so in order to help children who haven’t had an easy time making it on their own, he said. That includes Onody.
"I’ll be driving some school kids home this afternoon," said Onody, 76, who is now working as a part-time bus driver.