When heroes become bureaucrats

JULY 26, 2011

This article first appeared in City Journal.


On Memorial Day, a suicidal man waded into San Francisco Bay outside the city of Alameda and stood there for about an hour, neck-deep in chilly water, as about 75 bystanders watched. Local police and firefighters were called to the scene, but they refused to help. After the man drowned, the assembled “first responders” also refused to wade into the water to retrieve his body; they left that job for a bystander.

The incident sparked widespread outrage in northern California, and the response by the fire department and police only intensified the anger. The firefighters blamed local budget cuts for denying them the training and equipment necessary for cold-water rescues. The police said that they didn’t know if the man was dangerous and therefore couldn’t risk the safety of their officers. After a local TV news crew asked him whether he would save a drowning child in the bay, Alameda fire chief Ricci Zombeck gave an answer that made him the butt of local talk-show mockery: “Well, if I was off duty, I would know what I would do, but I think you’re asking me my on-duty response, and I would have to stay within our policies and procedures, because that’s what’s required by our department to do.”

If you stand a better chance of being rescued by the official rescuers when they are off duty, it naturally leads people to question the purpose of these departments, which consume the lion’s share of city budgets and whose employees—in California, anyway—receive exceedingly handsome salaries. In Orange County, where I worked for a newspaper for 11 years, the average pay and benefits package for a firefighter is $175,000 a year. Virtually every Orange County deputy sheriff earns, in pay and overtime, over $100,000 a year, with a significant percentage earning more than $150,000. In many cities, police and fire budgets eat up more than three-quarters of the city budget, and that doesn’t count the unfunded liabilities for generous pension packages, which can top 90 percent of a worker’s final year’s pay. It’s hard to argue that these departments are so starved for funds that they’re entitled to stop saving lives.

After I wrote a newspaper column deploring the Alameda incident, I received many e-mails from self-identified police officers and firefighters. Though a few were appalled by the new public-safety culture they saw on display, most defended it; some even defended Zombeck’s words. Many made reference to a fire in San Francisco that week that had claimed the life of at least one firefighter. The message was clear: Don’t criticize firefighters, because they put their lives on the line protecting you. There’s no doubt that firefighters and police have tough and sometimes dangerous jobs, but that doesn’t mean that the public has no business criticizing them—especially as they become infected with the bureaucratic mind-set spread by public-sector union activism. The unions defend their members’ every action; to the extent that they admit a problem, they always blame tight budgets.

The unions that represent first responders also have a legislative agenda to reduce oversight and accountability. I recall when a state assembly member closely aligned with public-safety unions contacted me about a union-backed bill that was too egregious even for his taste. Sponsored by a firefighters’ union after a district attorney prosecuted an on-duty firefighter for alleged misbehavior that led to a death, the bill in its original form would have offered immunity to firefighters even for gross negligence on the job. The legislation failed after the media started paying attention and ignited a contentious public debate. Perhaps the outrage at the Alameda incident will likewise cause a far-reaching discussion—one that helps restore the principle that the real constituency for public safety is the public, not bureaucrats and government workers.


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  1. Rex ther Wonder Dog!
    Rex ther Wonder Dog! 27 July, 2011, 00:11

    These clowns are scam artists, that is what they have become, nothing more.

    GED educated clowns with an entitlement mentality and hero syndrome.

    Reply this comment
  2. Liberty427
    Liberty427 27 July, 2011, 11:05

    I live in Costa Mesa. The public employee’s union has a well financed and well orchestrated campaign to smear the Mayor and his staff for their planned across-the-board layoff of city workers. Everywhere there are stupid signs that state: “Cancel the Layoffs. I’m a waste watcher”.

    Where is the response from the other side representing the tax payers? It’s nowhere. The union is winning the public relations war. Conservatives are doing nothing. Why ?

    Reply this comment
  3. Rex ther Wonder Dog!
    Rex ther Wonder Dog! 27 July, 2011, 21:48

    Conservatives are doing nothing. Why ?

    Hey, newsflash, EVERYONE who lives at middle class or below is out to stop these fraud pensions. Not just conservatives.

    Reply this comment
  4. CityTaxpayer
    CityTaxpayer 28 July, 2011, 13:50

    Liberty427 – you ask a good question, and here’s the answer. There are conservative voices, but they are not well funded. Every dime a conservative gets is voluntarily paid by a donor, whose name is then public record, and who does not get a write-off for the expenditure. By contrast, the government workers, with their big government waste and entitlements agenda (where poor people and immigrants are just meal tickets – the more chaos, crime, social disorder and poverty we have, after all, the more government jobs we have to create to babysit them all), have virtually unlimited funds.

    Where are those funds coming from, Liberty427? They’re coming from you and me, in the form of taxes that pay salaries to government workers, wherein the government worker unions make the government payroll offices withhold union dues from those salaries, wherein those dues are used to fund political activity. In California, get ready, political spending by state and local government worker unions averages about $250 MILLION per year. And that’s YOUR MONEY, being used against you.

    Let’s make sure we both understand this clearly: Government worker unions have taken over the government, so they can pass laws that expand government programs – which often make social problems WORSE, but that’s good for the government workers – and they can pass laws to increase their pay and benefits, “negotiating” these increases with politicians who they elect. They have virtually unlimited funds, as well as access to virtually unlimited “volunteers,” since government workers only work about 3.5 days per week, on average, while your average self-employed entrepreneur works about 6.0 days per week, on average. You are a slave to government worker unions, Liberty427. They use YOUR MONEY to brainwash the public, and any poor underfunded patriot who tries to tell the truth is outgunned and overwhelmed.

    Oh, by the way, if you want to see an example of unionized public safety officers – completely protected by their unions and therefore unaccountable – really abandon their charter to protect the public, check out this story:

    Reply this comment
  5. Surfcitybob
    Surfcitybob 28 July, 2011, 15:56

    I guess we have the best government unions can buy…

    Reply this comment
  6. Siegfried
    Siegfried 31 July, 2011, 17:49

    Not sure in which Bizarro World these critters can be classified as Heroes. Their main function is to make sure they get home safely at night, next is to write traffic citations for making right hand turns against a red light. Firefighters and Cops rate # 11 and #12 as far as dangerous jobs. The USSA military doesn’t even crack the top 20. Time for BooBus to wake up, NEH ???

    Reply this comment

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