This story was co-published with the Asbury Park Press, a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.
One town’s police contract guaranteed a retiring lieutenant $121,000 for unused sick time. Another’s promises officers six months pay with no work required as a parting retirement benefit. In another contract, cops get paid $109 an hour for side gigs like monitoring traffic at construction sites.
Despite attempts to rein in police union contracts in New Jersey, costly provisions remain common, an unprecedented analysis by the Asbury Park Press and ProPublica found. The news outlets identified contract clauses throughout the state that protect officer payouts that cost the public hundreds of millions of dollars.
In 2010, state lawmakers passed a law to stop huge retirement payouts for unused sick days, but taxpayers are still funding the largesse. North Bergen approved generous payments to four retiring officers in 2019, including a sergeant who got $75,330.32 for unused sick time. Some retirement payouts can be even higher. In 2017, a chief in Jersey City collected more than half a million dollars.
The debt for unused sick time and vacation time, which is largely dictated by the contracts, totaled at least $492.9 million for municipal police alone in 2019, according to a review of town budget records. The liability is primarily due to officers who were hired before the 2010 law passed.
The Press and ProPublica also found that unions and towns have a loophole that gets around the limit the state Legislature put on the payouts. Unlike in the private sector, where many companies require employees to use or lose their sick and vacation time each year, some union deals allow officers to sell back their unused sick time annually, which could allow new hires to exceed the $15,000 limit the state put on such payouts at retirement. Four officers in Norwood appear to have already exceeded the state limit with annual payouts. Norwood Borough Attorney Kevin Corriston said he believed the town was in compliance, but that he was unfamiliar with the law and would investigate further.
New Jersey State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, did not like hearing that the state law can be subverted.
“We obviously changed the law because we felt what was going on was wrong,” O’Scanlon said. “It’s a disservice to property taxpayers. Pure and simple.”
Reporters downloaded thousands of police union contracts from a state website and used a machine-learning computer analysis to identify provisions related to financial perks and discipline. Then the reporters read and counted provisions in 245 contracts that were in effect as of Jan. 1, 2019.
The contracts were laden with various financial perks. In nearly two dozen towns, they guarantee retiring cops months of pay, dubbed “terminal leave,” while doing no work. In Asbury Park, retirees get a golden badge. Some towns give a “perfect attendance” bonus if officers do not use sick time. In one town it’s a $600 gift card. In another the “attendance incentive” can tally up to $2,500 a year.
High-paying “extra duty” jobs — like sitting in a patrol car monitoring traffic at a road construction site — are also protected by the contracts. One department launched an internal investigation after the Press and ProPublica identified an officer logging nearly 28 straight work hours between his day job and his moonlighting.
New Jersey officers already enjoy the third-highest base salaries in the nation, as well as generous pensions and health care benefits. The costly compensation contributes to the state’s top rank for property taxes.
Beyond the financial benefits, at a time when there’s a national call for police accountability, the contracts include clauses that experts say can impede discipline.
Reporters found contracts in 20 towns that say police officers facing discipline are entitled to know the name of the person who complained about them. Hoboken’s contract says records of police discipline will be expunged and removed from an officer’s personnel files after five years. Contacted by a reporter, officials in several towns, including Hoboken, said they don’t currently follow the troubling provisions. They noted that police discipline is largely influenced by guidelines published by the state attorney general, which have added police accountability provisions since some contracts were negotiated.
A reporter shared the findings of this investigation with more than a dozen state and national experts in criminal justice, labor law, municipal finance and police accountability, including five who studied or worked with police union contracts. The contract provisions related to discipline are similar to those found in other parts of the country, they said. It’s hard to say precisely how New Jersey’s financial perks for police officers compare to those in other places because there’s been so little academic attention given to the subject, the experts said. But one former police official said he has heard of similar provisions in other states.
“Examination of police budgets is critically important right now and something that communities are demanding all across the country,” said Jonathan Smith, who supervised work on police accountability in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice from 2010 to 2015. “These provisions may be targets for review as to whether this is really fair compensation.”
The New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association and the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police, which represent officers across the state, did not respond to requests for comment.
Attorney Frank Crivelli, who said he negotiated contracts on behalf of police unions in at least 40 towns, said the dangers and challenges of police work justify the price in New Jersey.
“Ask somebody who calls 911” whether the responding officer is paid too much, Crivelli said.
Almost every small town in New Jersey has its own police department, even some places where the jurisdiction is so tiny it covers a single square mile. Experts say town officials may be at a disadvantage when they negotiate with the powerful police unions. The unions “extract the greatest value possible in any negotiation,” said Regina M. Egea, who was once Gov. Chris Christie’s chief of staff and now serves as president of Garden State Initiative, a conservative think tank.
New Jersey’s local budgets, like those of towns across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, are under tremendous strain.
Cutting costs won’t be easy. Some towns and state lawmakers have tried in the past, but their attempts were opposed by the unions.
That’s what happened in Lodi.
The Uphill Battle
Vincent Caruso was a cop in Lodi for 27 years, including a dozen as police chief. He could have served about 17 more years before hitting New Jersey’s mandatory retirement age for officers, 65.
But Christie had been crusading against perks for public employees, including the ability to cash in unused sick days for six-figure publicly funded payouts.
So in 2014, at age 48, Caruso retired with a payout of $342,000, which included his unused sick and vacation time and a three-month “terminal leave” payment to mark the end of his career. Lodi is home to about 24,000 residents and protected by a department of about 45 officers. The small borough had to arrange a “special emergency appropriation” to come up with Caruso’s cash and paid in installments.
“Police officers don’t get paid for what they do, they get paid for what they may have to do,” Caruso said. “How many people are going to turn around and strap a gun on, put a bulletproof vest on, kiss their wife goodbye and say: I may not be home tonight?”
Caruso became the borough manager for Lodi in 2017, which means he’s now obligated to be fiscally responsible for the same town that had to come up with money for his retirement payment.
But he said it’s exceedingly difficult to reduce the costs of a police union contract. Unions generally won’t accept the removal of one benefit from a contract without a town providing another, making it difficult to achieve a real reduction, Caruso said.
“It’s an uphill battle on many different levels,” Caruso said.
Towns that want to cut costs can face state arbitrators that may side with the unions.
In 2011, Lodi argued it could no longer afford to give retiring officers the three months of pay. The Press and ProPublica identified 22 police union contracts that offer a similar benefit, either as cash or as paid time off.
The Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 26 in Lodi challenged the action before the Public Employment Relations Commission, a state body that hears public employment disputes and gives binding orders to towns. Lodi’s police contract didn’t say cops were guaranteed the departure payouts. But Lodi had handed the money to retiring officers in the past, and the police union cited a “past practice” clause in the contract, which said unwritten benefits officers had enjoyed in previous years had to be maintained.
Lodi was ordered to pay up. Since then, borough taxpayers gave the three-month bonus to 17 retiring officers, paying out a total of $660,000.
A similar catch-all “past practice” provision shows up in at least 66 of the 245 police union contracts reviewed by the Press and ProPublica. That means those towns also will have a hard time getting taxpayers off the hook for any established benefits, even when a contract expires, unless the police union agrees to the change, an expert said.
“It’s almost like you’d need a stick of dynamite to get it out of the contract,” Caruso said of public employment perks. “Nobody’s going to give in.”
Short of layoffs, the best a town can reasonably do to reduce costs is to cut benefits for cops who haven’t yet been hired, which means cost savings are only achieved as senior employees phase out. And even then, towns generally have to provide another benefit if they propose taking one away.
Lodi’s police union contract expired in December. Caruso and the union agreed to stop the retirement payments for officers who had yet to be hired by the town. In exchange, Caruso agreed to a deal he thinks will eventually save money. Current officers got their annual raise bumped up, from 2% to 3%, in addition to keeping their retirement payments.
Sailing Into Retirement With “Boat Checks”
The battle against “boat checks” shows how hard it is to weed out the expensive benefits written into police union contracts.
Christie was outraged by retiring government workers selling back unused sick days for six-figure sums. Christie called the taxpayer-funded payouts “boat checks” for public servants to set sail in their golden years. He signed a law in 2010 capping the retirement payouts for unused sick time at $15,000 for new hires. But taxpayers are still funding the payments for officers who were hired before the law passed.
In 250 towns, the total liability owed to municipal employees grew between 2015 and 2019. Police made up more than half of the total liability in 2019, the most recent year the data was widely available.
The Press and ProPublica found that newly hired officers could get around Christie’s $15,000 cap on the payments. At least 54 of the 245 contracts reporters reviewed allow cops to sell back their unused sick days each year in a way that would allow the typical officer to collect more than $15,000 over a 20-year career. At least eight of the 54 towns did not have that clause in place at the time Christie’s law passed, meaning the clause was added after legislators tried to cap the buybacks.
The payout could be in cash or converted to paid time off. In three towns, an officer earning a median salary could feasibly sell back more than $100,000 in sick days over the course of a career, more than six times as much as the cap set by the 2010 law.
Payroll records show that some recently hired officers are on track to exceed the $15,000 threshold if they continue selling back sick days annually. In a report last year, the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation, which was created to fight organized crime, highlighted the annual sell-back problem in Toms River, Brick and Lodi.
Toms River Business Administrator Louis Amoruso said he didn’t agree with the report and argued the sick day sell-backs save money by encouraging employees to use sick days only when they really need to.
Brick Township Administrator Joanne Bergin noted that the report was critical of the town, but said state law and a state arbitrator that sided with a union left local officials in an “impossible position to be successful and make change.”
One finance expert said the annual payments for unused sick time violated the spirit of the 2010 law.
“The law should be changed,” said Richard F. Keevey, a former New Jersey state budget director and comptroller who has taught at Rutgers and Princeton.
When town officials and lawmakers try to walk back the excess, the unions hold their ground. In 2018, the New Jersey Legislature was poised to lower the sick day payouts at retirement for all public employees, not just newly hired ones. The bill had the sponsorship of top lawmakers in both houses. Then a police union president came to Trenton to lobby against the bill, and it died.
There has been no serious effort at reform since. Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, who was backed by the Policemen’s Benevolent Association when he ran for governor four years ago, pledged to members at a 2017 fundraiser, “I’m going to be here when you need me,” according to the police union’s magazine.
Pat Colligan, the PBA president, didn’t respond to a reporter’s requests for comment over three weeks.
When One Six-Figure Job Isn’t Enough
On top of taxpayer-funded benefits, New Jersey police officers can increase their earnings with “extra duty” jobs that add up to millions of dollars across the state.
Albert Maalouf manages 10 officers in his role as police chief for the affluent Bergen County suburb of Harrington Park. The town has about 5,000 residents and saw four violent crimes in the past decade. His $200,000 base salary is $25,000 greater than that of the governor of New Jersey. But Maalouf’s contract does not even require him to work a 40-hour week.
The light workload gives him time to boost his paycheck by doing extra duty jobs. In 2020, Maalouf earned at least $36,870.22 in overtime hours for the extra duty work, records show. The hours he worked add up to the equivalent of more than six 40-hour workweeks.
Maalouf walked a reporter through how he spent his typical workday toward the end of last year. He said he started at about 6 or 6:30 a.m. He’d schedule his officers, check his emails and then work an extra duty detail for about five hours. He’d come back at about noon and attend to other duties until he clocked out around 4 or 5 p.m.
“I attend to my duties adequately and I’m compensated the same as other chiefs,” he said.
Town Councilman Greg Evanella concurred, saying in an email: “there has never been a scintilla of a reason to conclude that the chief is not properly addressing matters within his purview as department head.”
Cops doing extra duty jobs are a common sight in New Jersey. Private entities like construction firms and utility companies pay towns for an officer’s time, at rates that can top $100 per hour, which are written into police contracts, the Press and ProPublica found. The towns pass the money on to their officers. In 37 towns, the contract says the municipality takes a cut — Lodi gets 33%.
“It’s definitely a revenue generator, there’s no question about it,” said Caruso, the former chief who is now the Lodi town manager.
Officers don’t necessarily work hard for the money, he acknowledged. When he was chief in Lodi, he got complaints that officers were reading the newspaper or looked like they were sleeping on extra duty jobs. So he instituted a rule that officers had to stand outside their patrol cars. Caruso acknowledged the rate that entities pay the town for off-duty officers is high, but a police car with its lights flashing helps to prevent accidents and the potential liability that comes with them.
“I do think it’s important to safety,” he said.
At least 84 New Jersey towns guarantee officers access to extra duty jobs through union contracts, the Press and ProPublica found. The contracts in 19 towns sweeten the deal, guaranteeing officers a minimum number of hours regardless of how long the work takes.
“We make it a four-hour minimum just to make it worth the officer’s while,” said Flemington Council Vice President Jeremy Long, who serves as the council’s liaison to the police department.
In some towns, it adds up to big money. In 2019, Rahway officers took home $1.2 million through extra duty work. That year in Bayonne, contractors paid $3.8 million for police extra duty jobs.
Municipal finance experts said the high pay rates for extra duty work are good for police but bad for the public. Companies have to budget for traffic control and those costs get passed on to their customers, the experts said.
“You pay a lot more for a police officer than you do for a crossing guard,” said Matt Hale, a Highland Park councilmember and an associate professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University. “And when you pay more, that additional cost is going to get passed on to consumers in the form of higher rates.”
Officially sanctioned extra duty jobs for cops can also present a conflict of interest, experts point out. For example, if officers frequently perform extra duty security at a bar, will they be a neutral arbiter if they’re called to a conflict at that bar when they’re performing their regular duties?
A 2017 study found police departments nationwide are increasingly involved in extra duty work. The study stressed the need to examine how those shifts could lead to misconduct, citing examples in New Orleans and Pittsburgh.
“It can potentially lead to corruption,” said Giuseppe Fazari, professor of criminal justice at Seton Hall University.
In Lakewood, Officer Andrew Solomon worked 980 extra duty hours in 2019 and took home an additional $63,000, which more than doubled his base salary that year. Over two days in June 2019, he recorded a 17-hour extra duty shift, took an hour off, then worked another 10 hours on his regular duties. He responded to eight routine police incidents on that shift, according to town records.
Solomon’s marathon of work appears to conflict with a department policy intended to prevent exhaustion. Officers aren’t supposed to work more than 24 hours without a six-hour break.
Following a reporter’s inquiry in January, the department launched an internal affairs investigation into Solomon’s extra duty hours, said Capt. Gregory Staffordsmith.
“We’re looking to see if any department policies were violated by either the officer or his supervisors,” Staffordsmith said. He added that the department is exploring a service to more carefully track officers’ off-duty work hours.
Solomon could not be reached to respond to questions about his long work hours.
Extra duty jobs have been criminally abused. About a dozen Jersey City cops, including the chief, have been charged with federal crimes — mostly fraud — in the U.S. District Court of New Jersey. Most of the charges were filed in 2017. The former chief, Philip Zacche, pleaded guilty to taking money for extra duty work he didn’t do. He was sentenced to two years’ probation and ordered to repay the city more than $24,000, forfeit more than $18,000 and pay a $10,000 fine. Five cops were sentenced to prison time, others faced probation and fines, and one died before sentencing, according to a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey.
“For decades there was a pattern of corruption in the off-duty jobs program,” a spokesperson for the Jersey City mayor’s office and police department said. The program was dismantled and is in the process of being reformed, the spokesperson said.
Jersey City unions responded to the shutdown of extra duty work in 2019 by suing the mayor. Their lawsuit was dismissed, according to James Mets, the attorney who represented the unions.
As for the former Jersey City chief, the state cut off his publicly funded pension. But the city funded a retirement payout worth more than $500,000 before he was charged, according to NJ.com.
Zacche’s attorney said the former chief shouldn’t have been penalized as severely as he was.
“[Zacche] deserves to pay a very hefty price, but it should not be the loss of the entire pension and medical benefits for his lifetime,” attorney Samuel Halpern said.
Asbury Park Guarantees Retiring Officers Their Golden Years
Generous police benefits can surprise even those who have worked in local government for decades.
Asbury Park Mayor John Moor was skimming through a list of city expenses in the spring of 2017 when one shocked him: a $7,442 gold badge and case for the departing acting police chief, Anthony Salerno.
“This one stood out like a sore thumb and it threw me for a loop,” Moor said.
His initial reaction was: OK, stop the big purchase.
Too late, Salerno already has it, Moor was told.
“That’s when I lost all faith in the system,” Moor said.
He started asking questions about how this happened, but everybody he spoke to just pointed fingers.
The genesis of the gold badge is the town’s police union contract.
Asbury Park’s police contract says retiring police officers are entitled to a 14-karat “gold filled” police badge. Ordinarily, “gold filled” jewelry is similar to gold-plated — a cheaper metal coated with a thick layer of gold. Not counting Salerno’s badge, the city had spent $8,163 on 10 badges in the past 10 years, an average of $816 each.
Salerno’s badge is described in a purchase quote as “14k solid gold,” a higher-end bauble than what was called for in the police contract and one much more expensive than what other officers received.
Salerno didn’t respond to requests for comment. Charles Uliano, an attorney who once represented him, declined to speak on his behalf and said he would pass a reporter’s contact information on to Salerno.
Asbury Park’s contract was the only one the Press and ProPublica could find that required a gold badge at retirement. Moor said he didn’t have a problem with officers receiving gold badges, but he felt the contract should specify a size and price.
Salerno could have approved the upgraded badge himself, funding his own glittering memento at taxpayer expense. As the head of his department, Salerno had the authority to initiate a purchase like the $7,000 badge, according to Moor.
Moor didn’t think to pursue asking Salerno to return the badge. After he got the runaround when asking about how the purchase was made, he gave up. “My bad that I didn’t pursue that,” he said.
Shortly after he was retired, Salerno filed a discrimination lawsuit against the town where he had been a public servant. He claimed he had been denied a promotion because he is a white man. The town denied wrongdoing and settled for $85,000.
Upon his retirement, Salerno also received a pension of $90,000 a year for life and a payout for unused sick and vacation time that came to $127,000.