Still on Patrol After Two Decades, Valued but Rare
The New York Times
By JOSEPH BERGER
December 13, 2011
They may be a little less swift on their feet or nimble in a fight, but despite the perils of their job, many have never lost their love for the electricity and unpredictability of the streets.
“These are guys who like listening to the radio and going to that job, the scene,” said Detective Andrew Eaton, speaking about colleagues who choose to remain rank-and-file officers for many years.
Photo: Benjamin Norman for The New York Times
And these veterans are often highly valued by the New York Police Department because they have the experience and street smarts to know, say, how not to inflame a family quarrel or infuriate a driver during a traffic stop. So, unlike most of their colleagues, when these rank-and-file police officers become eligible to retire after 20 years, they choose to stay on the job, doing exactly what they have been doing.
A spotlight was thrown on this type of seasoned law enforcer by the killing early Monday of Officer Peter J. Figoski, 47, of West Babylon, N.Y., who was shot in the face after he and his partner responded to a robbery at a house in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn.
Officer Figoski had been on the force for 22 years and had made 209 arrests, half of them for felonies, yet he did not choose to retire and was working the midnight shift in one of the city’s highest-crime areas. He could have quit two years ago with a pension equal to at least 50 percent of his salary, an amount that can be substantially augmented with overtime. The average annual police officer pension in 2009 was $58,563, which does not include an annual supplement of about $12,000.
Officer Figoski was one of a rare breed. According to the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, only 863 of the city’s 34,805 officers still hold the rank of police officer after 20 years. They are officers who may not want desk jobs or the responsibilities and headaches of being a supervisor, and are either not interested in or do not feel qualified to do the painstaking spadework of investigation.
“These are guys who like listening to the radio and going to that job, the scene,” said Detective Andrew Eaton, 37, who spent nine years on patrol before becoming an investigator working in the Midtown South precinct. “You don’t know who’s going to be needing your help, who’s calling you. You see people at their best and their worst.”
Other veterans choose to stay in a routine police job because, with seniority carving them a predictable schedule, they can moonlight. And each year of duty past 20 increases their pension. Other factors also influence a decision: whether a spouse works, whether children are still at home, the state of the economy (experts suspect that more officers are delaying retirement because of the feeble job market).
Officer Figoski was a divorced father of four girls, two of them in college. A Manhattan police officer who once worked the same Brooklyn tour as Officer Figoski said that Officer Figoski confided to him a year ago, when they were chatting at a wake for an officer, that he wanted to better support his children.
“I’m staying 25” years, the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, recalled Officer Figoski saying. “Technically, he shouldn’t have been in the game anymore. He should have been somewhere else.”
“Police work,” he added, “is a young man’s game.”
For a vast majority of officers, whose top base pay is $76,488, the 20-year retirement date is a milestone they yearn for. They can receive their pensions while starting second careers in security or construction, starting their own businesses, or working for police agencies in states that hire older officers.
“Many have it down to the day when they’re going to leave; they want to get out as quickly as possible,” said Joseph Pollini, a former supervisor of a homicide squad who is deputy chairman of the law and police science department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.
That was not always the case. “When I came on the job, everyone had 20 years or more,” said Lou Matarazzo, legislative director of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, another police union. “Today they come in younger and leave early.” The main reason is that pensions have mushroomed as a result of collective bargaining.
For those who stay, the opportunities for assignments like counterterrorism or undercover work have given officers alternatives to patrolling. “An officer still working a radio car after 20 years is a rare phenomenon,” said William J. Bratton, a former New York police commissioner.
Nationally, only 16 percent of the police and correction officers and others in law enforcement who were killed in 2010 had worked for more than 20 years, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Still, departments like to have a blend of older and younger officers. Veterans can impart wisdom to rookies and size up situations with more poise.
“A young police officer tends to take a job for power,” Mr. Pollini said. “They may not think as much as they should, while a seasoned police officer will stay calm.”
Also, he said, suspects “are more prone to listen to somebody who’s been on the force 20 years than someone who’s the age of your children or grandchildren.”
The drawback in some cases, Mr. Pollini said, is that sometimes veteran officers “don’t want to encounter that arrest at the end of your shift because you have your business to go to.” Filling out paperwork can be time-consuming and is a responsibility most officers detest.
Jon M. Shane, 45, a professor of criminal justice at John Jay who retired as a police captain in Newark, said that many veterans stayed on because “despite the trials and tribulations, they’ve mastered the tasks of policing and enjoy the camaraderie.”
“So coming to work is not a chore for them,” he said.
Joseph Goldstein contributed reporting.