In the world of The Wire, almost no one above the rank of sergeant is interested in real police work. The Baltimore Police Department's top officials are portrayed as sadistic, cynical, craven, vindictive, at best careerist operators. "Natural police" not a one.
Except Major Bunny Colvin, a bold urban innovator. To reduce crime in his district, the Western, Colvin creates "Hamsterdam," a network of three zones within which "drug enforcement [is] not a District priority."
He does this not only because he believes it's the right thing to do, but because, as he mentions more than once, he's got a 30-year major's pension coming. Combined with all that vacation time, boy, he's finally in a position to make a difference, perhaps for the first time in his career.
Is this true? Do defined benefit pensions liberate administrators to take the initiative and do the unpopular-but-right-thing? (For the sake of argument, let's assume for now that Hamsterdam was the right thing to do.)
If so, then pensions might be a price worth paying. Perhaps the whole debate over pension reform has been overly dominated by financial and economic considerations. Perhaps the subject's public administration aspect has been neglected.
Policy priorities should dictate compensation structures. One policy priority is to win the competition for talent. In the case of top management, the public sector can't realistically compete with the private on the basis of salary. Perhaps governments therefore should strengthen their ability to attract and retain top talent by offering benefits that the private sector generally does not offer. Defined benefit pensions would be a logical choice. Some have argued that pensions could help financial regulators reduce turnover and diminish the lure of Wall Street among their staff.
Attracting and retaining talent is a different priority than encouraging initiative. Yet another, pronounced in public safety departments, is that of easing older employees out of the workforce. People with defined benefit pensions retire earlier than people with defined contribution plans. This is the principled reason why some systems that have gone dc have exempted public safety from the change. (The political reason is of course public safety unions' willingness to back Republicans.)
Note that these three priorities-initiative, younger workforce, talent retention-may easily contradict one another. What happens when you end up retaining those workers you would prefer to ease into retirement? The desire to rack up service years may weaken initiative. Nor is it clear that initiative should be systematically encouraged among non-management personnel, whose chief responsibility is to carry out the policies devised by their elected and unelected superiors.
We come to the conclusion that the pension is a rather blunt tool for personnel management purposes. The same retirement benefit can induce different dispositions in different workers. Incentives are certain to overlap and work at cross-purposes when governments offer the same benefit package to all workers, regardless of rank and function. Ideally, governments would be able to target retirement benefits more precisely and freely tweak them for different employees.
The Wire recognizes the ambivalent benefits of pensions as a personnel management tool, which is consistent with the show's vision of American city government as a catastrophic failure from soup to nuts. Near the end of Season 1, then-officer Carver argues that an accountability gap exists between the drug crews and the police. To paraphrase (the exact words are unprintable here), hoppers who err face the open threat of physical violence, whereas police always have their pensions to fall back on. And we cannot fail to mention McNulty, whose "thirteen years on the line" were "[n]ot enough for a pension" and whose drive and aptitude for real police work had nothing whatsoever to do with material incentives.
Bunny Colvin fails. Crime does fall, but, furious about the political blowback from his unsanctioned experiment in drug legalization, Colvin's superiors bust him down to lieutenant and thus cut his pension. He protests that this is against the contract, but they threaten to punish his men. Colvin falls on his sword and accepts the lieutenant's pension. In case you're wondering, in 2012, that would be at least $63,000 with 30 service years (Source: here and here).