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Paychecks to Match the Risk

June 21, 2002

Standing guard at a county hospital or welfare office is generally not as dangerous or stressful as wrestling armed felons in alleys at midnight. So Los Angeles County should pay the cops who perform those security functions less than it pays the sheriff's deputies who patrol the streets.

The county police won big this month when Superior Court Judge Victor Chavez ordered the county to raise their salaries to the level of sheriff's deputies, as well as reimburse them $100 million for seven years of back pay and retroactively pension increases.

The court order followed a jury's decision this month that these officers were underpaid because of racial discrimination--80% of the approximately 500 officers are Latino or African American. The Sheriff's Department remains mostly white.

We're glad that county attorneys plan to contest these decisions. Though the two types of officers have similar qualifications--both are sworn peace officers and armed--their missions and risk levels are different. County cops sometimes confront street gangs, violent psychiatric patients or doped-up street thugs, but they generally patrol a controlled environment equipped with metal detectors.

Indeed, county police applicants have the opportunity to take the more lucrative career path by applying instead to the Sheriff's Department. One reason many don't is that they choose to avoid the daunting jail duty most deputies must endure. Until someone shows that the department is still hostile to black and Latino candidates--as it was in the past--the salary issue seems elective.

County cops earn 30% to 40% less than sheriff's deputies. Before they grasp for deputies' higher salaries, county police officers should recognize that there are those who think they should be replaced by private armed security guards, who as a rule make less.

In these times of terrorism, when public facilities need professional protection, we wouldn't want the county cops job privatized. In fact, we'd encourage the California Legislature to change state pension law to provide police benefits to the families of any county police officer killed in the line of duty. But the terrorist threat has made already-tight government budgets even more so.

The county cannot pay these officers $100 million this year, given its obligations to other vital services, such as the hospitals, that county police are paid to protect. This decision should be overturned.

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