“I’m tired of you people. What do you want?”
That’s how Chris Christie talks to educators, in this case an elementary school teacher who also runs an after school program. Christie is convinced teachers are overpaid, and as long as he’s been governor, he seems to be on a crusade to bully New Jersey’s educators, calling them “overpaid,” “greedy” and accused their “me first” salaries of killing jobs.
It must be nice for someone wealthy enough to send his kids to private school to trash New Jersey’s public education system, which by most measures (and few exceptions) is one of the best in the country. Unfortunately, his laser-like focus on the people entrusted to teaching our children has allowed him to ignore the state workers who are really overpaid – cops.
I’ve been down this road before. After drawing a cartoon a couple of years ago about the sometimes-obscene salaries and perks paid to police officers throughout the state, I received lots of emails, letters and messages calling me everything from a “cop hater” to a “liberal cartonist [sp] that would be raped if it weren’t for cops.”
So, for the record – I don’t hate cops. My neighbor is a cop. I have lots of friends that work for the police. I respect the job they do, and admittedly would not be well suited if I were forced to don a badge and gun.
Nevertheless, police officers are disproportionally (and sometimes obscenely) well compensated in the Garden State compared to other salaried workers, such as teachers.
According to a new report from The Marshall Project, not only does the state have the highest-paid police officers in the country, New Jersey is just one of three states that pays cops more than double the mean salary of other state workers.
Cops in New Jersey are paid a median salary of $92,250, meaning half the police officers in the state earn even more. Meanwhile, the typical non-police officer state worker is paid a median salary of $40,680. To put it another way, for every $1 taxpayers pay to state workers, they pay $2.27 to police. And that’s not even including benefits, pension and the all-important sick time payout.
I know, I know… we pay cops more because they face dangerous and life-threatening situations on a daily basis. Only that’s not the case for most police officers. Across all categories, crime is down in New Jersey compared to the 1970s and 1980s. Violent crime, property crime, rape, murder, robbery, aggravated assault – all have seen multi-decade declines. Crime is even down in Camden, where cops are paid much less than their suburban counterparts (unless you’re the chief of police and just “earned” an obscene $67,000 pay bump for a total of $230,000).
In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, being a police officer isn’t even in the top 10 of dangerous jobs. Using that standard, towns should be paying construction workers and garbage men more than cops.
Obviously the police must be paid so much because of the amount of high education they obtain. That might come as news to teachers, who start off with a lower base salary in just about every municipality in the state despite having to earn a Bachelor’s degree just to qualify for a job. Meanwhile, just 33 percent of all cops in the country have earned a Bachelor’s degree or equivalent.
It must be the long and terrible hours cops often are forced to work. That’s why the police are one of the few professions that get a paid salary and overtime, unlike teachers who stay late grading papers and planning lessons. The overtime also comes in handy when cops want to plump up their pension before retiring after just 20 years on the job, a nice perk only available to emergency workers. My favorite example is former Union City deputy police chief Joseph Blaettler, who retired at 46 with a $135,000 pension. Despite the city’s low crime rate, Union City taxpayers will likely make Blaettler a multi-millionaire in retirement.
So why do we pay police officers so much more than everyone else? Unions, weak politicians and fearful citizens. While fewer workers belong to unions these days, in New Jersey the police union remains one of the strongest forces in state politics. High salaries, early retirement, overtime for salaried workers, sick-time payouts – all were negotiated with politicians too spineless and too desperate for votes to put up much of a fight. This is a bad deal for taxpayers, who in a post 9/11 world seem willing to grant every request made, like handing over all our personal liberties and allowing the militarization of police forces.
At some point, taxpayers are going to have to come to the conclusion the state can no longer afford the gravy train given to the men and women in blue and force change. Because obviously, politicians and union leaders are apparently cool with the status quo. Why shouldn’t they be – it’s your money, after all.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and WHYY contributor. Follow Rob on Twitter @RobTornoe.