Not That Your Kids Care About Labor Negotiations

Daniel Foster’s piece in the National Review Online plays pretty fast and loose with measures of central tendency:

The public/private disparity is especially stark when one focuses on public-safety compensation in places such as Oakland; police and firemen have accounted for about 75 percent of expenditures from the city’s general fund over the last five years. Average total compensation for an officer in Oakland – a city in which the median family earns $47,000 – is $162,000 per year.

Someone break it down for us in the comments.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. So let me take a crack at this.

    To begin, they are comparing total compensation (which is salary + benefits such as health care, retirement contribution and other stuff) to salary (he says that a family earns 47,000 and that means take taxable income).

    But he’s also comparing the average for an officer, which will be pulled much higher by those few 20 year people and your commissioner, to the median. The value of the median will be unaffected by the size of the salary of the super-rich in Oakland. It’s a meaningless comparison, because we don’t know if that high average compensation includes a few fat cats or if it reflects a large trend of high levels of compensation.

    Who’s going to show this with a quick dataset that illustrates the point?

  2. That. Is. Fantastic.

    $90k seems like a pretty decent starting salary, if you ask me, though I wonder whether the new cadets have any idea how much Chief Batts is making. I couldn’t find his salary, but I’ve got $20 that guy is making BANK.

    That, or all of the officers have diamond-encrusted teeth with a $5 co-pay.

  3. While your notes on central tendency are fair (comparing mean and median definitely isn’t apples to apples), I think the more interesting problem is to ask how the heck that number is so big (what’s really going into it?). What a great interdisciplinary project it would be for kids to do some digging into public servants’ salaries, learn some labor economics and politics, AND analyze the data they collect.

    Oakland police officers work an insane amount of overtime because the force is so understaffed. That pushes up their total compensation numbers while their salary is something that seems a tad more reasonable. It seems like these officers are getting bank because their pensions are too expensive for the force to take on more pensions, and they’re getting pensions on top of it! This is a pretty sweet deal for them, but the remainder of their job is less than a sweet deal.

    When I look at the salary numbers (starting at ~72k), all I can think of is probability of losing one’s life in Oakland compared to most other towns in California. Granted, the market for unionized labor isn’t remotely perfectly competitive, but how much would you need to be paid to risk your life every night? Moreover, how much more would you need to be paid for the increased risk in Oakland than you would be paid in, say, Walnut Creek? If someone crunched the numbers on how much more likely you are to suffer a catastrophic loss as an Oakland police officer than a Walnut Creek police officer, then we could find out theoretically how much of a premium you need to pay per percentage point increase in those chances.

    p.s. As an Oakland resident and OUSD teacher, my two cents is that no one here seems to think that OPD is a crew of fat cats. They’re visibly out in the streets when they’re on the clock, and there aren’t nearly enough of them.

  4. Mr. F makes some great points, especially re: overtime and being understaffed. The smaller the number of officers, the more sensitive the mean to outliers.

    With respect to the relative dangers of being a cop in Oakland vs., say, Menlo Park, wouldn’t that already be incorporated into the base pay? As a class, maybe it would be worth looking at salaries for the NYPD or DCPD. Also, it would be a good opportunity to remind students that the question isn’t whether anyone deserves a certain salary, but why–as Mr. F said in his intro–the mean and median are so different.

    (Also, given CA’s budget issues, does anyone know whether public salaries end up getting paradoxically inflated, simply to compensate for the possibility of *not* getting paid? I know that sounds odd, but are wages partly a question of expected value?)

  5. “Average total compensation for an officer in Oakland – a city in which the median family earns $47,000 – is $162,000 per year.”

    When I teach statistics, it’s to college freshmen and it’s a required course. Much of what is already posted would meet with glassy-eyed stares of total incomprehension. So, I’d tend to start here:

    What is the generally accepted definition of “total compensation”?
    As a measure of central tendency, how is “average” determined?
    As a measure of central tendency, how is “median” determined?
    Now, what questions do you have about the meaning of the sentence? About the author’s intent?
    Could you depict this graphically? Why or why not? What would make a graphical depiction better?

  6. Well. I’ve been wondering how they got this $162,000 figure. Numerous bloggers quote each other without attribution (or I haven’t found it yet).

    I _have_ found that the total budget for fire + police is $300 million. And there were 776 officers (now 694 after layoffs). 776 * $162K = $125M. Is it possible that somebody simply took the budget and divided by the number of officers, neglecting, say, all the support staff, buildings, cars, gas, paper for tickets, etc.? This goes beyond “fast and loose with measures of [ center ]”!

  7. More info: I went ahead and downloaded Oakland’s budget. If we look at Fiscal 09-10, they allocate $213M for Police Services. The “Police Services Agency,” which includes all the officers, has a total of almost 1160 full-time employees (FTEs). These also include, for example, 70 dispatchers and 29 part-time crossing guards.

    They break down the operations by category. So “Patrol,” for example, has 563 FTEs, the largest slice of the pie. (Patrol: “This program provides police patrol, general investigation, community policing and crime prevention.”) It has a budget for personnel of $97 million. That’s an average of $170 K. Crikey. Other departments are less per capita, but the figure may be correct!

    Here’s what I still don’t get (forgive me that I can’t read this document thoroughly; this is on page 343 of the 783-page document!) — it looks as if “Operations and Maintenance” for these 563 FTEs in Patrol is only $843,000 for the fiscal year. If that’s supposed to cover cars, gas, bullets, whatever, I can’t imagine that’s enough money.

  8. My understanding is that the starting salary (not total comp, just starting salary) of police in adjacent cities (Hayward, San Leandro, Berkeley) is in the $40’s, depending on the city. These are cities with similar crime issues, risk.

    Another interesting point is that I’ve heard that most policemen consider Oakland a great place to have on their resume, i.e. it’s desirable and therefore has value beyond the salary. And I agree that Oakland police work hard, when there are any present.