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Is it cheaper to hire a new cop or pay huge overtime costs?

NJ.com logo NJ.com 1/24/2022 Riley Yates, nj.com

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of The Pay Check, an in-depth look at every dollar earned by 24,000 law enforcement officers across New Jersey in 2019. Find the full database here: The Pay Check.

As a veteran of the Fairfield Police Department, Chief Anthony Manna has seen the challenges of keeping a 24/7 police force running.

In his 37 years as a cop, Manna remembers how his Essex County department used to struggle to cover shifts on the weekends or late at night. To fill the gaps, off-duty officers would have to be pulled in and paid overtime, weekend after weekend, wearing them down as staffing demands forced them to come in.

“Nobody would answer their phones,” Manna said. “We would at some points have to go to someone’s physical home and knock at their door and say, ‘You have to work.’”

Yet six years into his tenure as chief, Manna says overtime is now under control. In his time, the township has added six police officers to its now 42-member force and, in doing so, waded into a debate that erupts every time overtime is discussed in government circles:

Is it better to hire more cops, knowing their salaries, health benefits and pension payments can add up to big bucks? Or is it cheaper to just grit your teeth and pay the overtime, even if it can reach six figures for some of the highest paid cops in New Jersey?

“I wish there was a perfect equation for that, because I ponder that all the time,” said Donald Vanaman, a captain with Lower Township police in Cape May County, which added about 10 officers over the past decade, to 50.

Vanaman said the additions have allowed the department to conduct bike patrols and other quality-of-life policing it would otherwise be unable to, while minimizing officer burnout from overwork.

In some police departments, officers pull in eye-popping overtime figures, according to a comprehensive review by NJ Advance Media of the 2019 earnings of every local police officer in New Jersey. That included a Clifton police lieutenant who earned more than $190,000 in overtime that year, and at least 29 other cops across 463 local departments and state police who broke $100,000 in overtime.

To be sure, long hours are baked into the nature of policing, which must respond to emergencies that cannot be predicted: the devastating storm, the heartrending shooting, the awful highway pileup. Yet much of the expense of overtime is driven not by disaster, but by the basic need to keep a police department running at all hours of the day, while maintaining a level of staffing that ensures that officers and the community are safe.

Multiple experts in policing told NJ Advance Media that hefty overtime figures raise doubts about whether a department is being effectively run. They said they also carry concerns about police fatigue, since overworked officers are less effective ones and can prove a danger to themselves and the public.

“What that indicates is there is a problem,” said Seth Stoughton, a University of South Carolina professor who has written about police overtime. “The money is not being efficiently allocated.”

If an officer is earning six figures in overtime, a department should be looking to hire another officer, who would be more productive than the one putting in those extra hours, said Stoughton, a former cop.

But law enforcement officials say that is often easier said than done. With the average police salary reaching $100,000 in New Jersey, some municipal managers shy from expanding police rolls, given the longterm expense. Nor can a police recruit just be plucked off the street and put in a uniform: Applicants must pass background and psychological checks and be sent to the police academy for months of training that some fail out of.

Because of that, “unfortunately, most police departments are staffed to their minimum number,” said Brian Higgins, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former Bergen County Police chief.

Excessive overtime is draining, even though the extra money can be attractive to some officers, said Chris Wagner, a retired Denville police chief who serves as director of public affairs for the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police.

“That’s nice for about a month, and then you reach burnout,” Wagner said. “Your cops no longer want to come to work. They get sick. They get burned out and that’s detrimental.”

In Weehawken in Hudson County, one patrolman earned $144,000 in overtime in 2019 and another pulled in $111,000. Nearly a dozen other officers made at least $25,000 in overtime.

Given those bills, Weehawken was hoping to expand its roughly 55-officer force, and had 10 recruits in line to attend the academy in 2020, said Public Safety Director Jeff Welz.

It wasn’t necessarily an easy decision. Starting officers earn $38,000, and the cost of their benefits ups that price tag to about $50,000 in the first year alone, Welz said.

“You’re hiring 10 guys at fifty grand, that’s a half a million dollars,” Welz said. “But if you don’t have half a million dollars that you’re going to save, it’s not cost-effective.”

In the end, the coronavirus pandemic scuttled Weehawken’s intentions anyway, as the health emergency forced police academies to close their doors. That delayed plans by a year and a half, though the township has finally been able to add new officers in recent months, Welz said.

“We definitely looked at it and said, ‘We have to hire,’ and then all hell broke loose,” Welz said.

The pandemic is just one headwind police departments are facing. At a time of reckoning in the role of law enforcement, officials say it has become more difficult to recruit officers to a job that is under scrutiny like never before.

The Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, found in June that hiring has fallen at police departments across the nation, and resignations and retirements have leaped. At the average police department, one out of every 15 positions are vacant, the survey said.

“The applicant pool has become a puddle, unfortunately,” said Patrick Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, the state’s largest police union. “And nobody is having an easy time recruiting.”

Though some are.

Manna, the chief of Fairfield, said he receives resumes almost weekly from jobseekers hoping to join his department. He chalks it up to the level of support police still have in his community — which is low crime, wealthy and relatively rural — despite national sentiment that is trending in the other direction.

Fairfield’s decision to add officers was helped by the retirement of some senior, highly paid officers, Manna said. The savings from their salaries was used to cover the new cost, and overtime bills have been cut nearly in half, he said.

But not eliminated altogether, of course.

“There’s always going to be overtime,” Manna said. “Until we get the criminals to agree to work Monday through Friday, eight to four, there’s always going to be overtime.”

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Have a question or a comment about this project? Email the authors at paycheck@njadvancemedia.com.

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