A few weeks ago, I was sitting around a table just discussing the issues of the day with several Southern California officers. We were all in Norco at a gun range where SureFire was demonstrating its line of suppressors for a group of gun writers and law enforcement editors.
If you’ve never been in Norco, Calif., in mid-June, then I need to explain something to you: It’s damned hot. Norco, in Riverside County, bears little resemblance to the more temperate climes of coastal California. It’s desert, hot and dry.
I was pretty dry myself, so I headed into one of the range trailers. Inside, I found a group of officers who also work as instructors with the SureFire Institute, a lowlight tactical academy that holds classes in California and on the road.
The officers were all sipping sodas. They offered me a can, and I sat down to join the conversation. For about the next 15 minutes, we talked guns, and tactics, and politics, and then somehow we started to talk about pensions and retirement.
A little background here. I sleep really well at night, except when I think about retirement. Like most Americans, I don’t have a defined-benefit pension. I have a 401(k) tax-deferred retirement account. The problem is that 401(k) retirement plans are not guaranteed. Your retirement benefit is determined by your investment history, and it can go bad, real bad. Ask the workers at Enron, if you don’t believe me.
Anyway, as we discussed pensions, one of the more astute cops in the group posited that once the baby boomers start retiring to diminished expectations and a depleted Social Security safety net that there will likely be a backlash among politicians and the public against public service pensions such as police retirement plans.
He’s probably right. After all, we live in a society whose motto ought to be, “What have you done for me lately?” So it’s likely that cash-strapped governments will try to rethink police pensions some time in the next two decades.
Doing so would be shortsighted because it would make it even more difficult for young men and women to forsake higher paying jobs and pursue law enforcement careers, regardless of how much they feel called to serve.
Now, I don’t want to start a panic here. Your pension is likely very safe.
That said, however, it should be noted that one of the cost-saving initiatives attempted by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was to cut public service pensions for state employees. Under the Schwarzenegger plan, state employees hired after 2007 would not have received defined-benefit pensions. They would have been eligible for a 401(k)-type plan. That proposal was shot down.
But there are still many people nationwide who believe it was a good idea, and it will arise again. That means you have to remain vigilant and prepared to organize against such thinking. Public safety and security demands it.
Your pension is often the only thanks that you receive for protecting the public. It’s compensation for long nights in the cold and rain. It’s compensation for hours spent away from your loved ones. It’s compensation for the fact that your job requires you to go in harm’s way every time you report to work. It’s compensation for the fact that your job is likely to get you sued.
Your pension should be considered off limits to bean counters and budget balancers. There are other places to trim government budgets.
It’s critically important that you stand together to prevent bean counters and opportunistic politicians from assaulting your retirement plans. Because if they ever start chiseling away at your pensions, nothing will be left.
That would be shameful. A strong and generous pension is the least society can do for your years of service.
Melissa Swailes—whose husband, Officer David Swailes of the LAPD, died by suicide in February 2016—discusses the day of David's death.