Bank-robbing policeman highlights plight of underpaid rookie officers
New York certainly has more than its share of real-life dramas. But even the jaded were stunned by the tale of Christian Torres, a 21-year-old New York City Police Department officer.
To family, friends and neighbours, Torres was a young man full of passion for criminal justice, talking about how he loved being a cop and helping to fight crime on behalf of the citizenry. But nobody had any clue of his part-time job - bank robbing. Last June and November he twice robbed a bank in the city for a total haul of US$118,000, which he spent on buying a new Toyota Scion for himself and a diamond engagement ring for his model girlfriend. He was arrested this month when he tried to run away after robbing US$113,000 from another bank, this time in Pennsylvania.
Torres, who graduated from the police academy last summer, has confessed and is now in jail awaiting justice. But his alternative career has mystified many, including New York City police commissioner Raymond Kelly.
'His police-cadet record was very positive. It's a shocking story,' Mr Kelly said.
The case threw a spotlight on rookie officers' pay. The starting salary of a first-year police officer was cut from US$40,000 to US$25,000 in 2005 so that the city could pay more to veteran officers. That change was related to a labour dispute between the city government and the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, the police union.
The salary is raised to only US$32,800 after a young policeman graduates from the police academy. 'Is this what NYPD's low pay is leading to?', one poster asked above a story about Torres in the forum of officer.com, a website focused on law enforcement.
It doesn't make a bank robbery acceptable, and the low salary doesn't stop thousands of new officers from working hard to defend the safety of the city. But it does, unfortunately, make them resentful.
'It's a historic low point for the NYPD because you cannot afford to live in the city on the salary they are offering,' said Eugene O'Donnell, a professor at John Jay College for Criminal Justice.
Professor O'Donnell joined the NYPD before he took the faculty position. He made US$2,000 less than today's new officers in the first year. But that was in the 1980s.
'After 25 years, they get only this slight increase. Some police officers in the police academy are receiving food stamps, which is for people in poverty,' said the professor, who, together with 29 colleagues, sent a letter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg after the pay cut, predicting a 'catastrophe'.
The prediction may be starting to come true. The number of police officers in the NYPD has dropped to 35,800, the lowest since 1992. Meanwhile, the police academy's dropout rate has hit 18 per cent, the highest in its history. The 1,100 officers who graduated last year were not enough to fill the NYPD's recruitment goal of 2,800. Mr Kelly has said he is facing a labour crisis.
It is worrying - even in a city where the crime rate has dropped to a historic low. NYPD's Operation Impact project, which was initiated five years ago to use rookie officers to patrol the most dangerous districts, is considered to be playing a significant role in reducing the crime rate. But perhaps not for much longer if the recruitment rate remains so low.
Both the city and the union seem to have realised there is a problem and a new labour deal could be agreed within the next few months.
For many young people who are interested in law enforcement, like Leeana Velez, the NYPD's blue is still the most exciting colour in the world. Growing up in New York and dreaming of becoming a police officer since she was a little girl, Ms Velez is graduating from John Jay next month, but won't consider the NYPD at least for now.
'The pay is too low, you cannot survive,' she said. She has set her eyes on the Suffolk County Police Department on neighbouring Long Island. A job there would require her to relocate but offers US$57,000 as a starting salary.