N.J. police salaries highest in the union

With a dismal economic climate and looming budget cuts, many N.J. voters begin to wonder if they can afford to continue paying high police salaries. (AP Photo)

My small town of Mahwah has a few things of note. We have two baseball fields up the road from my house and a locally-owned farm across the street. A few gas stations, a couple places to get bagels or coffee in the morning, and of course, like any town in N.J., plenty of “N.Y. Pizza” and diners. What we don’t have is crime. Let me rephrase that. We don’t have a lot of crime. Of course, any town has some crime. Some people speed, roll through reds, get into accidents. Every now and then, someone gets into an accident or an underage party where minors are drinking gets broken up. These things are not crimes as much as they are disturbances. Most are unintentional, many do not violate my feeling of safety, and almost all cannot be prevented — no matter how many cops are on the payroll.

It strikes me as odd then, that N.J. has the highest paid police in the country, and my own Bergen County has the highest paid cops in the highest paid state. The median salary for the state, meaning half make more half make less, was $90,672. Over 30 percent made six figures. Most of them came from Bergen County, which boasted a median salary of $109,700. The largest median pay for a town came in at $134,132 in Rochelle Park, where 19 cops patrol a 1 square mile borough.

While rich, suburban counties had the highest paid cops, poor, urban cities found disparagingly less in their pay checks. Newark, the state’s largest city, had a median salary of $90,160. Camden, usually considered one of the most violent cities in the country, was at $79,656. The difference in crime rate between these suburban areas and larger cities is astonishing. The crime rate is usually about nine times higher, while the violent crime rate is over 100 times higher.

And salary is just the tip of the iceberg in overvaluing our cops. A police officer making $100,000 per year may cost a town twice that when benefits and pension payments are considered. Overtime adds to the problem, by allowing officers to make extra for attending court hearings, working holidays, or covering for a sick officer. Depending upon location, officers around the state will bring in and additional $5,000 to $10,000 per year. Additionally, due to a 2000 law, police officers can retire after 20 years on the force regardless of age. After 20 years, retiring officers get at least 50 percent of their base salary but no health benefits. After 25 years, they get at least 65 percent and health benefits. Perhaps in 2000, this was somewhat acceptable. But during this economic climate, it’s simply unaffordable. Where else, in any job in any field, can you retire before 50 and still collect more than half of your salary?

After years of high property taxes and the ongoing recession, many residents are beginning to question if they can afford paying such a high salary simply to write parking tickets. However, police are backed by a strong union that wields a tremendous amount of political influence. They have deep pockets, and campaign checks speak a powerful message in government.

It’s tough to determine what a fair rate of pay is for an officer, for the same reason we struggle with teacher salaries- there are no statistics to prove they are doing a good job. Does a good crime rate of strong test scores necessarily indicate good performance, or rather smart students or obedient citizens?

So it comes down to a simple PR game — who can make people believe they deserve the salary? And it is in this fact cops have a strong advantage. People consider the risk of dying on the job, and can’t bring themselves to attack the very people who protect us.

However, the buck has to stop here. We cannot continue to allow cops to steamroll over elected officials in Trenton, and win every benefit debate or budget disagreement. Six figures in salary and a pension plan before 50 are simply unaffordable. And at a time when everyone is suffering, isn’t it only fair police officers in the highest paid county, in the highest paid state, share some of that burden?

Many times when I drive home on a late night, I can make out the thin sketch of a police car parked in the lot of the baseball field just up the road from my house. The field comes right after a bend, where the speed slows from 40 to 25, making it prime real estate to nail unsuspecting drivers.

A few weeks ago, late at night, I saw the cop handing a ticket to a guy he pulled over. “That sucks,” my friend in the passenger seat said. And while he thought about how bad it would be to get pulled over after  1 in the morning, all I could think about was his six figure salary, the endless stream of benefits and overtime, and the idea that I’d start paying this guy’s pension at 49 until I retire somewhere in my 60s.

“You don’t even know the half of it,” I responded as I turned onto my street.