A number of conservative news outlets—including the New York Daily News and MSNBC–-have begun to call attention to the New York City’s estimated $2M price tag for police overtime associated with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, blaming the protesters for wasting the taxpayers’ money. (In addition, some more mainstream papers have started to pick up the story, including the Metro, and some other “Occupy Target” cities have attempted to tally their own expenses, too.)
Naturally, my liberal knee-jerk side kicked into gear, trying to figure out what was wrong with this story. As a numbers guy, my first reaction was to check the math: could it really be that much? But after some quick back-of-the-envelope calculation, the figure seems quite reasonable, especially given the protests are now in their fourth week: 3 weeks = 500 hours; 25 officers x maybe $100/hour x 500 hours = $1.25M; an average of 50 officers per hour would be double that; sounds about right.
In fact, by comparison, the police overtime bill for the four-day Democratic National Convention in Boston was over $5M (in 2004 dollars), and the Examiner reports that San Francisco spend over $340K on police overtime associated with the Giants’ 2011 World Series victory—and that was mostly all on one parade. So maybe this protest is actually a bargain, as big public parties go. And in a time when we are worried about job creation and stimulus funds, putting a couple million dollars in the hands of the hard-working NYPD doesn’t seem like a bad idea—I imagine the money will trickle around in all sorts of ways…
Next I tried to find flaw in the overall premise: why should we worry about the cost of this particular need for police protection, rather than all sorts of other things? Aren’t these protesters citizens as well, entitled to their share of free expression, even if it comes at some expense. How can we be outraged at this “cost” to the public caused by the protests, etc.
But upon further reflection, I realized that we should be outraged—police overtime is costing the city a great deal of money, at a time when budgets are tight, regardless of how it might trickle down and keep people employed. That said, the problem I was sensing was with the spin of the headline, not the facts: rather than focus our scorn on the protesters, who are simply crying “foul” and trying to get some attention in the best American tradition, we need to think deeper and lay the blame on the root cause of their outrage. If a deep-water oil rig leaked toxic sludge all over our beaches, for example, we would expect the company to pay for the clean-up and associated public safety costs; if big tobacco intentionally addicts our population to cancer sticks, we would pass along the health care bill to them; and if an industry built on corporate greed and fraudulent practices wrecks our economy, our neighborhoods, and our social safety net, the least they can do would be to pay for the police overtime necessary while we vent our frustration and seek some creative solutions.