Are NJ police salaries fair? Cops in high-crime areas get less
With reporting by David Matthau
Most police officers in New Jersey are earning six-figure salaries before overtime and benefits.
A New Jersey 101.5 analysis of municipal police salaries found the median police salary last year was about $105,000 — an increase of 4 percent since 2012. For comparison, the median household income in the state is $72,000.
But the highest-paid cops are not always the ones patrolling dangerous city streets.
The police departments with the most generous payrolls are often in towns that go decades without experiencing a homicide. According to use-of-force reports that departments file with their county prosecutor, cops in these highly paid towns often retire without ever having to fire their weapon in the line of duty.
Almost 290 police departments had median salaries of at least $100,000, and 59 percent of all municipal police officers in the state made at least that much. Those officers averaged more than 18 years on the job.
The cost of paying municipal employees is one reason why New Jersey has among the highest property taxes in the country — and consolidating police departments has been among the ideas proposed by lawmakers looking to reduce the cost of government.
The highest median salaries, however, tend to be in suburban and affluent municipalities that can better afford to pay them. In crime-ridden cities where cops are more likely to risk their lives, and were residents may most depend on law enforcement, cash-strapped municipalities can struggle to attract and retain recruits.
Saddle River in Bergen County had a median salary of $155,508, the highest in the state. The borough of 3,200 people had two violent crimes in 2015, and just a single violent crime last year — a fist fight. Wood-Ridge, with the third highest-paid department in the state, has had a single homicide since 1990.
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Top 15 median salaries — crime rates
In Newark, which had 100 homicides last year, the median salary was just over $103,000, just shy of the median for the state overall.
Police officers in Union County were most likely to be assaulted, according to Uniform Crime Reporting data collected by the State Police in 2015, followed by cops in Camden, Cumberland and Cape May. Yet the median salary in Union was $28,500 less than Bergen, which had the fifth lowest assault-on-police rate in the state.
Cumberland had the lowest median salary, $81,852, followed by Camden with $87,732.
“It’s always been like that and basically it’s based on a town’s ability to pay," said Pat Colligan, the president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association.
“When we’re applying for a job, you apply to multiple towns. It’s still not an easy job to get, but if you’re lucky enough to be picked up in a town like that, then that’s where you’re going to continue working.”
“I’m not going to make apologies for the money police officers make in New Jersey," he said. "It’s a very expensive state to live in and the salaries are commensurate.”
Aside from Bergen's high cost of living, the county's existing high salaries have helped drive up the salaries of other police departments. When police unions negotiate new contracts, they can point to the salaries of other departments as justification for demanding better pay.
That's how officials in Englewood, which last year had the fifth-highest median salary in the state, explained the cost of their payroll back in 2010, according to a NorthJersey.com report at the time. Englewood's crime rate was slightly higher than the other high-paying departments. But this Bergen department's median salary was also $23,000 higher than the median salary of the Monmouth County township of Neptune, which has the same population but double the violent crime.
Colligan says a town's crime rate doesn’t tell the whole story, because whether it’s a high-crime or low-crime town, “you’re still dealing with infant deaths and doing CPR on a father on the kitchen floor with the family around, going to make death notifications."
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Top 15 highest crime cities — median salaries
One town may have a lower crime rate, “but it doesn’t mean the police officer is not working midnights, not working on Christmas morning leaving his family, not working a swing shift or a rotating shift.”
ACROSS THE SATE
Counties with the highest median salaries for municipal police officers.
BERGEN — $131,370
OCEAN — $113,796
MONMOUTH — $112,916
MIDDLESEX — $112,121
MORRIS — $111,836
SOMERSET — $111,295
PASSAIC — $109,988
SUSSEX — $108,008
MERCER — $107,234
HUDSON — $104,304
ESSEX — $103,004
UNION — $102,875
See how your town measures up. Scroll down to see our interactive map.
Even when cities can offer rookies competitive salaries, departments in high-crime cities often lose officers who seek greener pastures, law enforcement officials explain.
That's the case in Camden, which has the state's highest violent crime rate but one of the lowest median salaries for police at $50,335.
The median salary is so low in part because many of the Camden County Police Department's officers are just starting their careers. The median time of service for the force is three years, compared to 14 years for the entire state.
The city's municipal police department was disbanded in 2012 because of the city's financial shortfalls. By eliminating the department, officials wiped out the city's collective bargaining agreement with officers, and the new county-staffed force's pay scale for patrol officers maxed at about $2,000 lower than the city's former department. Officers also no longer get longevity pay.
Camden County police spokesman Dan Keashan says the department's starting salaries are commensurate with other urban areas, but says the department sees high turnover because many officers want to go work closer to where they live. That means the department loses experienced officers and has to spend money on training rookies.
Still, Keashan says the department — which was praised by President Barack Obama during a vist in 2015 — has shown remarkable improvement in combatting crime in one of the most dangerous cities in the state. So far this year, Camden has counted just three homicides. The death toll was at 16 this time last year.
Middle Township Police Chief Chris Leusner, a vice president of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police, says towns get what they pay for.
“Community problem-oriented policing is a philosophy a lot of towns in New Jersey subscribe to and that takes some resources," he said. “I think it also comes down to what kind of police service to you want to provide. To attract and retain good people, that number is going to vary across the state.”
Leusner says police salaries are not what’s driving high property taxes in New Jersey because police payroll typically accounts for just a third of the municipal portion of the tax bill.
The New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police doesn't take a position on whether police departments should be consolidated, but Leusner says the decision "should be made on what’s in the best interest of the communities."
“It should not be made on cost-savings, because we know that cost-savings are very minimal.”
He said an example of this is what happened after the borough and township of Princeton merged in 2011.
“When the residents opened up their tax bill, it was a very minimal difference,” he said.
But there are examples of consolidation or shared services making a meaningful difference. Lake Como disbanded its police department last year, and is now served by police from neighboring Belmar. Borough auditor Robert Allison said in a public presentation earlier this month that led to the first Lake Como municipal tax decrease he could remember, TapInto.net reported.
Not all towns have their own police department. About a hundred municipalities rely on the State Police.
Municipal police salaries
Click on a town to see the median and top salaries. The darker the blue, the higher the median. Towns that share police services or use State Police are in gray.
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5.