Police Pensions and Voodoo Actuarials

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A key argument that public-safety officials use to justify their absurdly high pension benefits –- i.e., “3 percent at 50” retirements that allow them to retire with 90 percent or more of their final year’s pay as early as age 50 -- is this: We die soon after retirement because of all the stresses and difficulties of our jobs. This is such a common urban legend that virtually every officer who contacts me mentions this “fact.” They never provide back-up evidence.

Here is one article I’ve been sent by police to make their point. It was written in 1999 by Thomas Aveni of the Police Policy Council, a police advocacy organization. Here is the key segment: “Turning our attention back towards the forgotten police shift worker, sleep deprivation must be considered a serious component of another potential killer: job stress. The cumulative effect of sleep deprivation upon the shift-working policeman appears to aggravate job stress, and/or his ability to cope with it.

"Even more troubling is the prospect that the synergy of job stress and chronic sleep indebtedness contributes mightily to a diminished life expectancy. In the U.S., non-police males have a life-expectancy of 73 years. Policemen in the U.S. have a life expectancy of 53-66 years, depending on which research one decides to embrace. In addition, police submit workman's compensation claims six times higher than the rate of other employees ...”

I don’t doubt that police work can be very stressful, but many jobs are stressful, many have long hours, many are more dangerous, many involve sleep deprivation. As intelligent adults, we all need to weigh the risk and benefits of any career choice. Aveni uses the high amount of workers compensation claims as evidence of the dangers of the job, but given the tendency of police and firefighters to abuse the disability system – miraculously discovering a disabling injury exactly a year from retirement, thus getting an extra year off and protecting half the pension from taxes – I’m not convinced this proves anything. Given the number of officers who are retired based on knee injuries, back aches, irritable bowel syndrome, acid reflux, etc., this suggests that police game the system and know their fellows on the retirement board will approve virtually any disability claim.

There are so many legal presumptions (if an officer develops various conditions or diseases it is legally presumed to be work related, whether or not it actually is work related) that bolster the scam. “Disabled” officers often go right out and get similar law enforcement jobs, which calls into question how disabling the injury really is. Regarding sleep deprivation, police and firefighters have secured schedules that minimize the long hours; then the officers often choose to work overtime for double salary, which perhaps is the real cause of sleep problems.

The big whopper in the Aveni article, however, is the claim that officers live to be 53-66. If that were so, there would be no unfunded liability problem because of pension benefits. Police officers would retire at 50-55, then live a few years at best.

But, for example, according to the state of California pubic employees' retirement system (CalPERS) actuary, police actually live longer than average these days, which isn’t surprising given that the earlier people retire and the wealthier they are, the longer they tend to live. And according to a 2006 report to the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System, these are the age-60 life expectancies for the system’s workers (meaning how many years after 60 they will live):

-- Police and fire males: 22.6
-- General service males: 23.4
-- Police and fire females: 25.7
-- General service females: 25.7

So we see that police and firefighters who retire at age 60 live, on average, well into their 80s. That’s real data and not the hearsay used by apologists for enormous police pensions.

CalPERS actuary David Lamoureux sent me a CalPERS presentation called “Preparing for Tomorrow,” from the retirement fund’s 2008 educational forum. The presentation features various “pension myth busters.”

Here is Myth #4 (presented as part of a Power Point presentation): “Safety members do not live as long as miscellaneous members.” CalPERS officials explain that “rumor has it that safety members only live a few years after retirement.” Actuarial data answers the question: “Do they actually live for a shorter time?” The presentation considers the competing facts: “Safety members tend to have a more physically demanding job, this could lead to a shorter life expectancy. However, miscellaneous members sit at their desk and might be more at risk to accumulating table muscle!” Fire officials, by the way, make identical claims about dying as early as police officials.

For answers, CalPERS looked at an experience study conducted by its actuarial office in 2004. It looked at post-retirement mortality data for public safety officials and compared it to mortality rates for miscellaneous government workers covered by the CalPERS system.

Here are the CalPERS life expectancy data for miscellaneous members:

-- If the current age is 55, the retiree is expected to live to be 81.4 if male, and 85 if female.
-- If the current age is 60, the retiree is expected to live to be age 82 if male, and 85.5 if female.
-- If the current age is 65, the retiree is expected to live to be age 82.9 if male, and 86.1 if female.

Here is the CalPERS life expectancy data for public safety members (police and fire, which are grouped together by the pension fund):

-- If the current age is 55, the retiree is expected to live to be 81.4 if male, and 85 if female.
-- If the current age is 60, the retiree is expected to live to be age 82 if male, and 85.5 if female.
-- If the current age is 65, the retiree is expected to live to be age 82.9 if male, and 86.1 if female.

That’s no mistake. The numbers for public safety retirees are identical to those of other government workers. As CalPERS notes, average public safety officials retiree earlier than average miscellaneous members, so they receive their higher level of benefits for a much longer time.

Here is CalPERS again: “Verdict: Myth #4 Busted! Safety members do live as long as miscellaneous members.”

The next time you hear this “we die early” misinformation from a cop, firefighter or other public-safety union member (most of them probably believe it to be true, given how often they have read this in their union newsletters), send them to CalPERS for the truth!

I expected these numbers for the recently retired, given the pension enhancements and earlier retirement ages, but it seemed plausible that police in particular might have had a point about mortality rates in earlier days. But even that’s not true. A 1987 federal report from the National Criminal Justice Reference Center, “Police Officers Retirement: The Beginning of a Long Life,” makes the following point:

“'The average police officer dies within five years after retirement and reportedly has a life expectancy of twelve years less than that of other people.’ Still another author states, ‘police officers do not retire well.’ This fact is widely known within police departments. These statements (which are without supporting evidence) reflect a commonly held assumption among police officers.

"Yet, a search of the literature does not provide published studies in support. Two suggested sources, the Los Angeles City Police and Massachusetts State Police, have provided data which also appears to contradict these assumptions. Reported in this paper are results from a mortality study of retired Illinois State Police (ISP) officers. It suggests that ISP officers have as long, if not longer, life expectancy than the population as a whole. Similar results also arise when examining retirees from the Ohio Highway Patrol, Arizona Highway Patrol, and Kentucky State Police.”

The report also casts doubt on the commonly repeated statistic that police have higher rates of suicide and divorce than other people. The federal report found the divorce rates to be average and suicide rates to be below average. This is important information because it debunks a key rationale for the retirement expansions, although more recent data need to be examined on divorce/suicide rates.

Police have an oftentimes tough job, but many Americans have oftentimes tough and sometimes dangerous jobs. This needs to be kept in perspective. Public officials need to deal in reality rather than in emotionally laden fantasy when considering the public policy ramifications of pensions.

This article was excerpted from Greenhut’s forthcoming book, “Plunder! How Public Employee Unions Are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives And Bankrupting The Nation” to be published by The Forum Press in November.

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Don't forget the sick time!

Retiring firefighters here in California get paid for unused sick time. Many of them get over $100,000 in unpaid sick-time payments; some break $200K. I was discussing this with a union zealot; he claimed that this was one of the reasons that a union was so great, because "they EARNED that money, they DESERVE it, and the union makes sure they GET it!" I pointed out that private-sector employees haven't got sick-time payouts since maybe 1992. He replied that this was why unions should make more inroads into non-service industries. It's like I was talking to a dog or something...

Is Greenhut being disingenuous?

What Greenhut has failed to tell you, intentionally or otherwise, is that the figure used by Aveni (that police life expectancy is 53-66 years), was attributed to respected publications. One such text that Aveni footnoted was "The Impact of Shift Work on Police Officers," published by the Police Executive Research Forum in 1991. That text suggested that police life expectancy is 53 if officers have worked rotating shifts throughout their careers.

I’m not sure what Greenhut’s intentions are, but it appears as though he only wishes to tell one side of the story.

Retired cops dead by age 53? RIIGGGHHHH TTTTTT!

Gosh! Thanks for the input, Robert.

Data paid for and published by police officer labor union hacks is "respected" research???

Who'd 'a thunk it?

But you cops (or perhaps a bought and paid for actuary) would best know what entails top flight investigative work. Uh huh.

Nevertheless, I admire the audacity of your post -- actually asserting with a straight face that the average shift changing police officer is dead by age 53. Ya know, you might have picked a more reasonable age to fool some folks. As it is, you fool no one, and completely ruin whatever credibility you might have.

Consider changing your posting name. You've destroyed "Robert Anderson."


This sarcastic and, in my opinion, immature response drains virtually all of the credibility from this post. Its pretty easy to determine the bias in the post. Actuaries are necessary like war is necessary.

British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli initially and later Mark Twain by reiteration posited that there are three kinds of lies: 'lies, damned lies, and statistics'. Actuaries' stock in trade is statistics. By the almost universal standard of 'Body Mass Index' virtually all body builders fall under the category of 'morbidly obese'. Slanted ideologues who often belie their allegiances can always find an actuary to agree with their perspective. Just like property values are 'ascertained' by appraisers. Social Security and Medicare were structured via actuarial studies. Sometimes we need to see if there isn't more than just a set of numbers that contribute to the problem.

As is usually the case with typical idealogues, Mr. Rider has put all his emphasis on numerical predictions and has left much of the argument out of the equation.

"Get all the fools on your side and you can be elected to anything.”

Frank Dane

"Average cop dead by age 53" is LUDICROUS

Kindly present credible data that the average shift changing police officer is dead by age 53. Or even 63.

Yes, I am sarcastic. And yes, I am biased. A lot! But I'm pretty savvy on the mortality issue and on pensions.

This "age 53 death" is a LUDICROUS assertion -- parroted by police officer labor unions. Everyone with half a brain knows I'm right. If you think otherwise, obviously you are a beneficiary of this racket.

Sadly, such is the case for too many actuaries who make their living by prostituting themselves -- systematically understating the true cost of public defined benefit pensions in exchange for an in-house salary (and a great pension!), or for a consulting fee. Stated differently, if such folks tell the truth, their income from government and the public employee labor unions will simply dry up.

Seriously, do you think this silly "death at age 53" assertion has any credibility? Do you?

Life expectancy - from birth and from retirement

Life expectancy has changed greatly over the last hundred years, so in making life expectancy calculations, one must consider when the data came from. And in the population at large, there has been a huge impact in mortality improvement at advanced ages due to improved cardiac care [prevention and treatment] just in the last few decades.

I'm not going to make any assumptions where these numbers came from, what time period was covered, etc. Robert, do you have links to some of these reports? I've been searching for them, but I'm coming up short. [I'm an actuary interested in retirement issues, and I've looked at annuitant mortality trends many times before, so I'm curious to see the original data]

If you want a good comparison, not only would you need life expectancy from selected ages [using birth as the starting age is misleading when it comes to these] but also survival statistics. How many people make it to age 60 in service? I assume it is lower for public safety employees than for regular office desk public employees, just because you get far more deaths just from doing one's job as a firefighter or a police officer.

Cop job deaths not significant average mortality factor

". . . because you get far more deaths just from doing one's job as a firefighter or a police officer."

mpebopeep, while clearly more police die ON THE JOB than desk workers, almost all still make it into their retirement years -- so on-the-job deaths are not a significant factor in the average mortality rate of public safety vs. the general population.

Moreover, the mortality rate for cops and ff's on the job is significantly less than it is for many blue collar jobs -- such as construction laborers, or truck drivers.

Of course, we don't have huge show funerals for dead truck drivers and laborers, so one gets the impression that cops and ff's are falling like flies. Not so.

I know. This is why I'm

I know.

This is why I'm asking for the original data. [I had a little more incredulous comment and decided to edit it]

I'd like to calculate that life expectancy for myself.

Once, the company I worked for got a letter a few years ago from an annuitant saying the annuity payments were too low, and he used data from life insurance [um] tables from the 1960s [what?!] to calculate the life expectancy. You don't need to be an actuary to see why this might be a problem [at least one of the problems.] I can't exactly critique the assumptions made if I don't know the assumptions.

So I'm just wondering where the data are coming from. And what, if any, actuaries were involved in making this report.

Police quit before age 60 for good reason

When a govt worker can retire and start receiving 90% of their salary, why on earth would they continue working at that job? After hitting the standard "90% at 30 years" plateau, no further pension benefits can be earned (except salary increases) by police and ff's.

Of course, some police and ff's simply start a new job. Then they have TWO incomes.

In addition, by retiring they no longer have to pay for labor union dues, pension contributions, commuting costs, etc, etc. Truth is, most 30 year police and ff's get more cash from their pensions than they netted from their working salaries.

Furthermore, many go out on "disability," a loosely defined and (ahem) poorly policed category that results in up to 50% of their pension becoming tax free -- which saves 65% to 85% on their state and federal income taxes.

It would also be nice to see

It would also be nice to see the original Calpers data, if possible.

If you'd like to play around with some standard mortality tables used for calculating life expectancy [and have Excel], check this out:
Simple life expectancy calculator spreadsheet [disclaimer: I wrote it]