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police & fire

Think New Jersey police are overpaid? Try doing the job

AN OFFICER WRITES: In light of a recent newspaper article about police salaries in New Jersey being among the highest in the nation: First off, let’s remind ourselves that New Jersey’s cost of living is one of, if not the highest, in the country, and that most jobs in New Jersey, including private sector jobs, pay more than other states.

The article in question is outright offensive to police officers for many reasons — Number One being that it implies that police work is “less dangerous” in suburban or rural areas compared to urban areas.

In some respects, that is true. However, in many suburban/rural departments, only one police officer provides coverage for the entire municipality, regardless of population or physical size. [In] a densely populated area, you are more likely to have more police officers, which equals more backup. The risk of assault or being killed increases when you work alone.

Crime happens everywhere, obviously at a higher rate in a more densely populated area. Nationwide, however, more police officers are killed in rural settings than in urban areas. From 2005-2009, the average number of police officers killed in the line of duty per year was 159, with an average age of 40.

The newspaper article fails to report the fact that the average life expectancy of a police officer is 53-57 years, according to a study done by the Police Policies Council. The average life expectancy of a non-police male is 73 years. That is an astonishing difference.

Post-retirement life expectancy for a police officer, no matter the age, is just THREE YEARS.

Take into account the shift rotations, job-related stress, PTSD, etc. — not to mention the health risks of working a shift alone, such as cardiovascular diseases, obesity, sleep deprivation, diabetes, stroke, depression and mood swings, to name a few.

Depression and mood swings are the likely cause of a high suicide rate among police officers: 18.1 suicides per 100,000. That figure is 52% higher than that of non-police officers, according to an insurance claims study conducted by the FOP in 1995.

I’m not saying that we’re the only professionals susceptible to these health risks — just that it is another required part of this job that affects our quality of life.

Another involves assaults on officers. According to New Jersey Uniform Crime Reports, there were 2,588 reported assaults on police officers in New Jersey in 2009: 86 percent of those were physical assaults, 14 percent occurred with a weapon. What‘s more, 29 percent of assaults occurred during handling of “disturbance calls,” and 19 percent of assaults occurred affecting an arrest.

I challenge anyone to find a job in the private sector that reflects comparable numbers to all of those statistics listed above. The fact is that it is impossible to find a private sector job to compare with that of a police officer.

There is a reason we wear body armor, guns, pepper spray and batons when we work: There are people in this world who want to hurt us or kill us, simply because of who we are and what we represent. It is apples to oranges when any comparison is made between police work and private sector jobs, including salaries and benefits.

Another figure the newspaper failed to report is the comparison of municipal tax rates of towns with police departments to those without.

For example: The average property tax in Andover Township in 2009 was $5,651. The neighboring towns of Lafayette and Green Township are similar to Andover, both demographically and geographically. Neither of those townships funds a municipal police department, yet the average property taxes in those municipalities are $6,374 and $6,337 respectively — nearly $1,000 more than Andover.

But let’s look closer:

A breakdown of taxes in Andover Township shows that the cost of the board of education to each household exceeds the amount of municipal tax by nearly $3,000.

Of course, property taxes are higher in some towns and lower in others. But the ratio of tax dollars to police services remains roughly the same. Essentially, every homeowner, on average, pays roughly $500 a year for a full-time police department that is available to every person who lives or travels through the municipality 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Disbanding police departments and laying off officers to save money is a myth. Stillwater Township is a great example of this: Residents, along with the support of the council, successfully voted to disband the police department. Yet there were no tax breaks or refunds that followed.

In fact, a home in Stillwater Township assessed at $114,000 was taxed $5,050 in 2009. That same home, after the disbandment, cost $5,243 in taxes last year. Not only are homeowners paying more in taxes; they’re getting less emergency service. It makes absolutely no sense.

Oddly, the newspaper article cited only Uniform Crime Report Statistics, which reflect the amount of crime reported in a given municipality or county. It appears the newspaper made no effort to collect data from law enforcement agencies for general calls for service that don‘t involve crimes or arrests.

General calls for service can range from something as simple as a complaint of a barking dog to emergency ambulance calls, and everything in between. Somebody on the other end of the line needed assistance, and it is highly doubtful that he or she was wondering what the responding officer’s salary is. People who call the police are concerned with whatever is occurring in their life at that moment. They don‘t care how much we make, just as long as we show up when they call, no matter the reason.

Finally, the newspaper article fails to recognize that most police officers participate in activities within the department and their communities strictly on a volunteer basis, not for overtime, not for compensation time, but for the good of the people. Officers participate in D.A.R.E. programs, G.R.E.A.T., and Junior Police Academies, to name a few. We make donations to civic organizations, such as Little League, soccer, football, wrestling and other activities. Some of us even take on coaching these teams.

It all boils down to this: We are dedicated to the communities we serve. And whether you want to believe it or not, we perform a public service that has inherent dangers, whether we work in an urban area or in Sussex County.

Just like you, we pay taxes. We don’t get tax breaks or incentives, like the wealthy. Most of our families, in fact, are two-income households — same as the majority of American families.

The average salaries for police officers in the published article includes those of senior officers and ranking officers who have worked their way up the ladder; this will obviously raise the overall average. The truth is: Most starting salaries are in the low-to-mid 30s, and some even lower. Eventually, an officer works his or her way up the pay scale. This takes time. No officer makes $100,000 right out of the academy.

The overwhelming majority of us conduct ourselves professionally at all times. But like anyone else, we sometimes make mistakes. The only thing is: When that happens, it‘s front-page news. Still, we are responsible for making life-or-death decisions in seconds, knowing all of the laws and ensuring the protection of every citizens’ rights. A jury, on the other hand, can mull over a case for days, weeks or months — and, if it finds a mistake, could end your career just like that.

We are expected to maintain our composure when we see something that would make the average person crumble. We are expected to treat everyone the same, even when we’re spit on or insulted — something that just might make the average person lose his or her  cool. And because we are sworn officers of the law, we literally are “on-duty” 24 hours a day.

Still, we’re expected to forget our day’s worst visions, go home, and be there for our children, wives, and husbands — when we‘re not pulling another shift. It isn’t always easy forgetting some of the horrible things we deal with, or the fact that we‘re often forced to miss some of the important moments in our family‘s lives.

That’s because we work holidays, weekends, nights, swing shifts, snowstorms, hurricanes, floods — you name it. Our departments are on the job 24/7 so that you can get a restful night’s sleep.

If we do our jobs the way we were trained, we’re still called derogatory names. If we are too kind, we’re lazy. If we can’t solve your problem, we’re incompetent. We are expected to be doctors, lawyers, marriage counselors, parents to unparented children, teachers, mechanics, plumbers, veterinarians, wildlife experts — the one and only cure-all, really, to any problem a community has.

We’re not looking for recognition. That’s not the point. We have chosen to deal with the element in society nobody else wants to. Sometimes we leave for work, say goodbye to our families — just like you do before work — and privately wonder if this will be our last shift.

Why do we deserve the compensation we get? Because we earn it.

Police Officer Joseph Indano, Andover Township F.O.P. Lodge #177,  worked in South Plainfield before transferring to Andover. He won the 2006 State of New Jersey Police Officer of the Year Valor Award for rescuing two teens who fell through thin ice. Indano also received the Sussex County Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Valor Award that same year. This article originally appeared on CLIFFVIEW PILOT in January 2011.

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