News Story

Media’s Flint Police Narratives Misleading And Often Wrong

Police pay not unreasonably low, especially where $28,834 is median household income

A water crisis, fiscal failures and crime statistics that land it on lists of the most dangerous places to live have, for years, attracted media attention to the city of Flint.

One of the most misleading narratives involves economic hardships for employees of the Flint Police Department.

Over the last four years, various media reports have portrayed a department of underpaid officers who earn a minimal wage in a city that is too poor to pay its police.

But that claim is inaccurate.

In fact, five Flint department employees made $100,000 or more in 2020, in a city where the median household income was $28,834.

In December 2019, one graduate of Mott Community College’s police academy was hired by the Flint department and was paid $50,050 in his first year. Another officer from that same class made $52,818 in 2020. A third officer made $50,487 in 2020.

These are not flukes. Like many of Michigan’s police departments, jobs in the Flint department are frequently organized in a way that makes overtime payments a substantial portion of most officers’ gross pay. Reports that ignore this fact and focus instead on base pay amounts paint a false picture.

In 2018, The New Yorker published a story on Flint titled, “Inside A Broken Police Department In Flint.”

That article stated that Sergeant Robert Frost, “like many Flint police officers, has been laid off and called back to work three times over the past dozen years, because Flint is too poor to pay him.”

The city paid Frost $90,308 in 2020, an increase from the $79,889 he earned in 2019.

Two years later, The New York Times had its own inaccurate depiction of police salaries.

Its Sept. 4, 2020, article stated: “I wanted to ask a Black officer: Do you think these efforts will lead to meaningful change? So for Monday’s show, I called Scott Watson, an officer from Flint, Mich., and in our conversation, he was unconvinced. Defunding, he argued, has essentially been underway in Flint. The city’s police department is often cited as one of the most underfunded, underresourced and understaffed in the nation. In his 23 years on the force, Scott said, he had seen salaries slashed, officers laid off and the department put under emergency management.”

Had that reporter checked, she would have discovered she was talking to Flint’s highest-paid police department employee. Watson’s pay was $120,037 in 2020, up from the $110,344 he made in 2019.

Even the city’s politicians seem to be unaware of police payroll realities.

An MLive article published earlier this year quoted a city council member bemoaning low pay for police officers.

“Pay the officers,” said Maurice Davis, a city council member. “We want to retain that talent. ... You got to be paid your worth. ... We can’t be at the bottom in pay.”

A different story on police salaries went viral in 2017 when MLive erroneously reported that Flint police officer make less than janitors.

The MLive headline read: “Flint tries to hire police with pay less than janitors, manicurists and bellhops.”

It was inaccurate because the story was based on compensation that trainees were given while going through the police academy, not what they were paid once they graduated and were sworn in as police officers. While in the academy, cadets are not sworn officers and do not have the legal authority of police.

MLive has refused to correct the article.

The union contract posted on the city’s website states what the starting salary is for a Flint police officer. The base annual salary for a Flint police officer in the first six months is $34,860, according to the contract. By year two, that increases to $38,112. The top of the scale is $55,000.

But police officers’ gross pay is almost always much higher due to the amount of overtime that is built into the job.

In December 2019, Mott Community College released the names of its police academy graduates.

Three of them were hired in 2020 by the Flint Police Department. In 2020, their first year on the job, those officers made $52,818, $50,050 and $50,487.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.