Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Exposing the Pay of Public Safety Officials

By Jessica Silliman

Does the public have the right to know the salaries of police and firefighters?
Just two years out of Santa Clara University, Patty Jordan was a young reporter at a small daily newspaper in Oregon when she was assigned to research city employee salaries. The information was public record, but was not as easily accessible as it was supposed to be. Instead, it took Patty weeks of calling the city attorney to get access to the pay of more than 500 public employees, including firefighters and police officers.

After looking over the records, she realized that these employees made much more than most would think. "In general, people think teachers, police officers and firefighters make less than they should," said Patty. "But in reality, I found that some police officers and firefighters made way more-some even in the six figures."

When local firefighters and police officers got word of Patty's investigation, they lobbied the newspaper not to run the numbers. Though they claimed the numbers shouldn't be run because they would make employees targets for crime, Patty believed they were worried about damaging their image in the community. While the community knew of the hard work of police and firefighters, they probably didn' t know how much some were paid.

"These high-paid officers had moved into more administrative roles-they were making a lot of money with few responsibilities," said Patty. "Residents and taxpayers had the right to know this information."

As a young reporter, Patty was frustrated with the actions of the police and firefighters. She knew the importance of the issue and felt they were trying to kill the story. She didn't want them to get in the way of her commitment to the community and to journalism.

After long discussions with her editor, they decided to run the pay numbers with titles and no specific names. Though some titles, such as the Chief of Police, could point directly to one person, the other titles were grouped to avoid personalization.

"We realized we would be overstepping our boundaries by printing the actual names," said Patty. "We were wrong in trying to be spiteful. It was irrelevant whose name is was-it was the amount of money that was the important part."

"In the end, it also would have severely damaged our relationship with both the police and fire departments," said Patty.

Patty won a state prize for the piece.

Discussion Questions:

  • How important is protecting relations with a source? Is it worth giving up details in a story?
  • Should the salaries of public safety personnel, such as police and firefighters, be made public?
  • Should their salaries be treated any differently than other public employee salaries?
  • Do you think the solution of Patty and her editor was justified? Did it give away too much information? Too little?

Jessica Silliman was a 2006-07 Hackworth Fellow at The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

June 2007


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