Back in 2005, I needed some help at the Battle Lab. One of the people I interviewed for the job was a Columbus, Georgia motorcycle police officer. He called me a couple hours before the interview and asked me if it would be okay for him to show up in uniform. I said sure, no problem. I thought to myself, "Why would a cop who gets to ride around all day on a Harley, carry a gun every day, and arrest bad guys want to leave all that just to experiment with cool toys for the Army?” Right away I got my answer. It was the money--$23,000 a year. I checked his resume, and yep, he had a Master’s Degree. A Master’s Degree holder with over 20 years of Army experience was making only $23,000 a year.
How often do we think about the sacrifices police and sheriff patrol officers make for us every day? What about the danger they face? The answer to both questions is probably not very often. What about how much money they make to enforce the laws of this country; to protect and serve our communities? The answer is probably even less often than the answer to the first two questions. Did you know that in fifteen states, the mean salary of police and sheriff patrol officers isn’t even enough to meet a family’s basic needs? If you live in the Southeastern United States, did you know that in every Southeastern state but Florida, patrol officers who make the mean salary serving your communities don’t make the living wage for their respective states? What about the Northeast? The mean salary for patrol officers in New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont is less than the living wage.
The analysis of mean salaries for Police and Sheriff Patrol officers revealed that, in 15 states officers making the mean salary are not paid the state’s respective living wage. No wonder we see so many police officers working second and third security jobs. This is especially important in families where only one spouse works. These families need to find other sources of income or work as many overtime hours as possible to meet their family’s basic needs. In separate work, the BLS found that in 2016, among American married-couple families, in 48 percent of families both the husband and wife were employed; in 19.5 percent of married-couple families only the husband was employed, and in 7.1 percent only the wife was employed.
The number of overtime hours, or second jobs the patrol officer needs to take to make ends meet if the spouse does not also work depends on where they live. In two of the states (New Hampshire and Kentucky), the mean patrol officer annual salary is close to the state’s living wage; $443 less in New Hampshire and $498 less in Kentucky. In each of these states, the patrol officer making the mean salary would have to work 11.2 and 16.1 hours of overtime, respectively, to make the living wage for their state. In the other states where the officer’s mean salary is less than a living wage, they would have to work even more hours of overtime. In Vermont, the mean annual salary is $3,617 less than the state’s living wage. That equates to 103.7 hours of overtime needed to make up the difference. In Maine, the mean annual salary of a patrol officer is $5,605 less than the state’s living wage. The patrol officer making the mean salary would have to work 170 hours of overtime to make up the difference.
The state with the greatest difference between patrol officer mean salary and the state’s living wage is Mississippi. The mean annual salary for patrol officers is $11,534 less than the state’s living wage. That equates to 462.8 hours of overtime the average Mississippi patrol officer must work just to make up the difference.
When looking at the specific states where patrol officers making the mean salary are not paid a living wage, we see a trend in the Southeast. The mean salary for patrol officers in every state in the Southeast, except Florida, is less than the living wage. The differences between mean salary and living wage in these states ranges from the greatest (Mississippi) at $11,534 less than the living wage to the least (Kentucky) at $498 less than the living wage. Patrol officers in the southeast who make the mean salary are making between $498 and $11,534 less than a living wage. More specifically, the rest of the Southeastern states where patrol officer mean salaries are less than the living wage are Georgia at $7,176 less, South Carolina at $4,388 less, North Carolina at $4,295 less, Tennessee at $2,975 less, and Alabama at $2,574 less than their respective living wages.
Together, these seven Southeastern states make up nearly half of all the states where the mean patrol officer salary is less than a living wage. One possible reason for this is cost of living. All the states but South Carolina are among the lower half of the states for cost of living. Mississippi has the lowest cost of living, Tennessee the fifth lowest, Alabama the eighth lowest, Georgia the ninth lowest, Kentucky the sixteenth lowest, and North Carolina the 18th lowest. South Carolina comes in as the 28th lowest cost of living among the states.
Cost of living probably also explains why mean patrol officer salaries in West Virginia are less than a living wage. It comes in as the state with the 23rd lowest cost of living. The same can be said for Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Kansas. Arkansas has the second lowest cost of living; Oklahoma the third lowest, Kansas the seventh lowest, and Louisiana the 17th lowest. With Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont though, using cost of living as a possible explanation for why patrol officers are paid a mean salary that is not a living wage is a stretch at best because these three states have the 38th, 39th, and 40th lowest cost of living. In other words, only 13 states than Maine, 12 states than New Hampshire, and 11 states than Vermont, have higher costs of living.
It is important to remember that, while the states with the lower cost of living are also those where the mean patrol officers salary is not a living wage; the living wage is specific to each state. Even though a patrol officer who makes the mean salary in Mississippi is doing so in the state with the lowest cost of living, he or she still does not make enough to meet a family’s basic needs.
As seen in the table, police and sheriff patrol officers in several states fare very well. In California, they make a mean annual salary of $96,660, the highest mean salary for all states. Interestingly, the mean salary of a patrol officer in California is more than twice that of a patrol officer in Mississippi. What’s more, the difference between the mean salary in California and the state’s living wage is $39,345. This difference alone is more than the mean salary for patrol officers in Mississippi ($34,550) and Arkansas ($38,020), and nearly equal to the mean salary of a patrol officer in Louisiana ($39,390). Patrol officers in New Jersey also fare very well, making a mean salary that is $31,381 more than the state’s living wage.
The table below lists the annual mean wage, hourly mean wage, state living wage, the difference between the annual mean wage and the living wage for the states highlighted in this article. For a fuller analysis of the data for all 50 states and Washington D.C. see "This Is How Much A Living Wage Is in Each State" by Chris Kolmar.
Any patrol officer making less than the amount in the State Living Wage column is not being paid a living wage.
At the Ready realizes that police and sheriff department work schedules vary according to the contract under which they work. Some departments have patrol officers that are required to work an 8-hour shift 5 day a week, some departments have patrol officers that are required to work 4 ten hour shifts a week and some have patrol officers that are required to work 4 twelve-hour shifts. Overtime is also included and is worked and paid according to contract.
|State||Annual Mean Wage||Hourly Mean Wage||State Living Wage||Living Wage +/-||Overtime Hours Needed|
Editor's Note: We used mean salary Data from BLS and the Living Wage data from MIT’s living wage model; if you'd like to scrutinize our methology, then please click here for an in-depth article detailing it.
About the Author
Mike Kennedy is a frequent contributor to At the Ready Magazine. He is a former Airborne Ranger Infantryman and after the Army spent fourteen years working for the U.S. Army Maneuver Battle as an Experimentation Manager, where he routinely worked with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Robotic Systems-Joint Project Office, Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center and numerous other government labs to develop and test new equipment and concepts designed to make Soldier’s lives better. At the Battle Lab, Mike managed and supervised the execution of experiments, data collection procedures, analysis of raw data and presentation of results in written form for Army decision makers. He personally planned, coordinated, and executed more than 80 unmanned systems experimentation events. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from American Military University. Mike’s professional training includes the Test and Evaluation Basic Course, Project Management, Scheduling and Cost Control, Advanced Techniques of Project Management, Fundamentals of Systems Acquisition Management, Capabilities Based Planning, Business Case Analysis, and the Army Capabilities Development Course.