COURT HOUSE - According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), New Jersey’s police and sheriff’s patrol officers are compensated better than in all but two other states, Alaska and California.
A review of data from the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System (PFRS) shows that a municipal police officer, in Cape May County, in 2019, earned an average salary of $84,825. The range across departments; however, was significant, with the mean salary, in the largest department, in Ocean City being $100,275, and $59,644 in West Wildwood.
County Law Enforcement
It's no secret that New Jersey values its law enforcement officers, and pays them well.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), New Jersey boasts 31,341 sworn law enforcement officers spread across 534 agencies. The bulk of those agencies are municipal police departments, but the number also includes state and county officers, corrections department officers and a vast array of college police officers, park police, bi-state authorities’ law enforcement and railroad police.
In Cape May County, a review of the PFRS for active police officers shows 11 municipal departments, with 334 active officers, as of Sept. 30, 2019. County-level law enforcement accounts for an additional 149 officers, bringing the total to 483. County numbers include PFRS-covered corrections personnel, the County Prosecutor’s Office and the Sheriff’s Office.
Of the 16 county municipalities, three do not have local police departments, and arrange their coverage through New Jersey State Police. They are Upper Township, Dennis Township and Woodbine. Two other municipalities, West Cape May and Cape May Point, have entered into sharing relationships with Cape May for police coverage.
That leaves 11 independent municipal departments, of which Ocean City is the largest, with 58 officers, as of the end of the third quarter of 2019, and West Wildwood the smallest, with four officers. The departments supplement their ranks with special officers in the summer.
The pension database provides a snapshot of actual salaries and wages in a way that municipal budgets do not. A budget will include funds for special officers during the season. It will contain aggregate salary and wage funds that may never be used, and will eventually be redirected.
The data analyzed here is actual salary information of individual officers on the active employee lists gaining service time credit toward retirement.
Cape May County municipal police departments were spending $28,331,496 in salary and wages for 334 officers Sept. 30, 2019. Almost 60% of those officers were on the job a decade or more.
The average service years for the municipal officers varied greatly by the department.
In Cape May, the mean service years of the 19 police officers were 17.2 years. Three officers in Cape May hit the threshold of 25 years of service, but potentially worrisome for the city is the fact that an additional six officers will be reaching that retirement threshold in a year or two.
While officers stay beyond the 25-year point, many do not. A large number of retirements in close proximity can leave a department with a significant loss of experience.
The mean salary in Cape May is $94,394, second to Ocean City. If one calculates the median salary, Cape May comes in at $101,418. Three out of every four officers in Cape May are at salaries above $100,000.
At the other end of the spectrum, Avalon’s 21 officers have an average service time of nine years. One officer in the department hit the 25-year threshold.
Avalon’s department is younger, and that is reflected in the mean salary of the officers, which stands at $69,736, almost 20% lower than the average for the 11 departments combined.
The four-person department, in West Wildwood, often occupies the lowest position in any ranking of county departments because it is small. The chief of police tops the department’s salary list, with $101,000, but two of the other three officers do not make $40,000 a year.
The average service years stand at 7.2, even though the chief has 17 years. Statistics are easily distorted in groups with small numbers.
Five of the 11 police departments have mean salaries above the county average of $84,825. They are, in order from highest to lowest, Ocean City ($100,275), Cape May ($94,394), Sea Isle City ($92,771), Wildwood ($90,801) and Middle Township ($86,182).
Six of the municipal departments have mean salaries below the county average. They are, listed from highest to lowest, North Wildwood ($80,980), Lower Township ($76,816), Wildwood Crest ($70,729), Avalon ($69,221), Stone Harbor ($65,221) and West Wildwood ($59,644).
For individual officers, 42% of the 334 municipal police officers are at or above $100,000 a year.
The benefits picture for police officers varies based on years of service, individual municipality contracts and other factors.
Front and center in any look at benefits is the retirement package, which is influenced by when the officer was hired. The PFRS has three membership tiers that dictate the contribution rate for the retirement fund, service retirement calculations and other factors.
Tier I officers had to be hired before May 21, 2010. In Cape May County, 56% of the active officers are Tier 1.
Benefits may include health packages, deferred contribution plans, life insurance and vacation/sick/personal/paid holidays. Officers with 25 years of service are also entitled to paid health benefits in retirement.
Among the most expensive items in municipal budgets are the required pension plan payments. For police officers, that involves the budget category of contribution to PFRS. For the four municipalities with career paid firefighters, this category would also include their pension contribution.
The pension system data showed total salary and wages paid to municipal police officers at $28 million. The budgets of the 11 municipalities, for 2019, show budgeted PFRS contributions of close to $8 million after one factors out the percentage contributed for firefighters in the towns with career fire departments.
The picture for county law enforcement shows lower mean salaries. For the 149 PFRS covered titles in the Prosecutor’s and Sheriff’s offices, including corrections, the average salary, in 2019, was $73,789. The mean years of service for county law enforcement is 10.8 years; 14% of the county positions are over $100,000.
The inclusion of corrections officers in the total brings the averages down since corrections officers, on the whole, earn less than police officers.
The county budget for 2019 includes just over $3 million in funds allocated to PFRS.
The increase in salaries for police officers in New Jersey needs to be viewed in the context of the pension reforms of 2011, which increased the payments deducted from those salaries for health benefits and pensions contributions. That same law placed a 2% cap on increases, which was removed in 2018.
New Jersey continues to pay its police well; however, there is significant variation across the state and in the counties. While some state data shows median police salaries across all 21 counties at over $105,000, the numbers are skewed due to high pay in some wealthy northern suburban communities, with low crime rates and a high cost of living.
Cape May County, as a whole, is over 20% lower in terms of mean or median salaries for police officers than the statewide calculations.
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