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A Times Editorial

Cash bonuses for police? Solution isn't that simple

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 15, 2002

At first glance, supporting the efforts of Inverness merchants Winston and Andrea Perry to create a Police Appreciation Week, including collecting donations for cash bonuses for the officers, would seem to be an easy decision. After all, who would not want to show some gratitude for people who willingly put their lives on the line each day to protect the public?

It's not so simple, however.

The biggest roadblock is the longstanding Police Department policy that prohibits such gifts, directly or indirectly. If the officers accept the donations, they will face disciplinary action by the city.

That policy, standard in law-enforcement agencies, most government offices and many private businesses, exists for a good reason. People serving in positions of public trust are held to high standards of conduct. Allowing public employees to take money or gifts from citizens in ways other than through their taxpayer-funded paychecks opens the door for abuse, real or perceived.

This is not to impugn the integrity of the officers or the donors, nor to suggest that the police would alter the manner in which they enforce the law based on a citizen's donation. But such gifts, no matter how well-intentioned, invite problems. A blanket prohibition protects everyone involved.

The Perrys said they anticipated such ethical concerns and contacted several local lawyers to ask about the propriety of the donations. They consulted with officials with the Florida Commission on Ethics. All parties, the Perrys said, gave them the green light.

Their homework, however, was incomplete. They did not check with Inverness City Hall before launching their drive. Had they done so, they would have learned about the policy against accepting gifts. Then they could have found some other way to show their support for the police without putting themselves, the city and the officers in an ethical bind.

The Perrys equate their efforts to the massive outpouring of donations to police and firefighters following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. People nationwide gladly gave money to those agencies, which gratefully accepted them, without any thought of paybacks or favoritism.

They also point to fund drives in other communities to raise money to buy bulletproof vests for officers, food for police dogs and other items. Why, they ask, is this fund drive any different?

In the case of the Sept. 11 victims, the situation was unique in the nation's history. Call those donations the incredible exception to what is the standard rule for virtually every public servant, from the police to building inspectors and code enforcement officers. Even if the New York City police had tried, there was no practical way to stem the tide of millions of dollars coming in from a grief-stricken nation and world.

In the second example, the donations were aimed at purchasing needed equipment that would become public property, not cash gifts to individual officers.

The Perrys' idea was born of a need to right what they and many others in the city perceive as a wrong done to the police officers by the City Council and the city manager. The officers recently sought an 8 percent pay raise and instead received a raise of 1.5 percent (with the option of an additional half-percent based on merit). Along with that came changes in the city's health insurance coverage, which would mean a financial hit on some officers in the small department.

The Perrys are incensed at what they see as miserly city leadership, and they want to help out those officers who may be struggling to make ends meet. For that, they deserve applause.

But there are other, more effective ways to accomplish that goal. The best would be for those citizens who support the holiday donation effort to go to the Inverness City Council and demand that the city give the officers a larger raise.

By using their political clout, the citizens could produce a financial boon that the officers would see every pay period and not just in a one-time Christmas bonus.

As for the money that has already been donated, City Manager Frank DiGiovanni said Friday that if the citizens decide to give it to the City Council to help the police, there are ways that it could be used to offset some out-of-pocket expenses for the officers.

A better idea, he suggested, would be to direct the money instead to the Cops for CUB effort, which the city's police officers run to help needy families through the Citrus United Basket program. The whole community would thus benefit from the citizens' generosity.

The idea of giving money to police, while noble in spirit, is fraught with problems. There are better ways to support your local police that do not involve ethical dilemmas, the most promising of which is to beat a path to the Inverness City Council chambers. The Perrys and those who favor their efforts are urged to take that route.

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