SAFETY COSTS money, and in New Jersey right now, police officers and governing bodies are trying to figure out if they can sacrifice for safety's sake.
As layoffs become a real possibility for police departments across the state, both parties have different ideas of what safety and sacrifice mean, though. To avoid layoffs and maintain public safety, administrators say they need sacrifices in the name of pay freezes, furloughs, health-care contributions and other concessions.
Officers and their union representatives feel that governments are in search of a quick budget fix and are too willing to sacrifice public safety by laying off officers.
"It's a fact of life that when police aren't around, bad things will happen," said Cherry Hill patrolman Tim Tedesco, an FOP president and member of the Cherry Hill Police Officers Association.
Statewide, more than 100 departments have notified the New Jersey State Policemen's Benevolent Association that they will lay off or are contemplating laying off police officers to meet new budget challenges made by Gov. Chris Christie.
Layoffs have been discussed in big cities such as Trenton and Atlantic City and rural areas in South Jersey, including Winslow, Millville and Franklin townships, and in shore towns like Ventnor. Police officers already have been laid off in Collingswood.
"There's a huge push right now to let the ranks drop in law enforcement through layoffs and attrition," said Jim Ryan, a New Jersey PBA spokesman. "We will look back at 2010 and realize it was the single biggest loss of officers in 10 years."
In Cherry Hill, rank-and-file officers have not worked out a deal with the township, which announced last month that it could lay off up to 16 officers by July 1. Last week, the township announced that the department's Superior Officers Association, which represents captains, sergeants, lieutenants and other supervisors, agreed to a pay freeze in 2010 and only modest cost-of-living raises in subsequent years. The township wants the same concessions from its uniform patrol division.
"Right now, everything is fluid," said Dan Keashen, chief of staff for Cherry Hill Mayor Bernie Platt. "The mayor is leaving all options on the table. The municipality only has the ability to pay so much."
When talk of layoffs surfaces, police unions often mention the negative impact that fewer officers would have on the community. It's an emotional subject and one that evokes images of burglars prowling unpatrolled neighborhoods, or accident victims, bleeding and scared, waiting in the wreckage for an officer.
"Police unions put the scare on people," said Barry Wright, a former police officer and current committeeman in Winslow Township.
In Winslow, a sprawling community that was once a hotbed for new housing, 12 officers will be laid off, including Patrolman Daniel Calabrese Jr., the son of a Winslow officer who was killed in the line of duty there in 1994. The Winslow Township Police Association said that the June 14 layoffs will leave the department with 72 officers, 16 below its recommended staffing level of 88.
Rick Solis, a Winslow resident and retired state trooper, said that the officers' lives are being destroyed, but he also said that the township is losing the good money it invested to put those officers through the police academy.
"This township doesn't realize what they're losing," the lifelong resident said. "They could get scooped up by other municipalities and we would lose out on all ends."
At issue in the township, Wright said, is whether the government should raise taxes to the maximum allowed to keep the officers. He believes that it's not fair to the taxpayers.
"It's not easy to lay anyone off, especially police officers, but the money is just not there," Wright said. "What they're asking us to do is just not fair to everyone."
Wright said that the Winslow officers are paid very well, with sergeants, lieutenants and captains making more than $100,000. The Star Ledger, of Newark, claimed that the state's police officers are the highest-paid in the nation, with a base salary of $75,400.
In recent months, Christie has been engaged in a heated battle with the state's public employees, specifically teachers, over salaries, pensions, pay freezes and other concessions. But the former U.S. Attorney hasn't been nearly so vocal about police officers' salaries. A spokesman for the governor did not return requests for comment.
Stuart Alterman, a PBA attorney, said that many local municipalities are using Christie as an excuse to slash away at their departments.
"Towns are jumping on the bandwagon and, unfortunately, learning through others to mistreat their public employees," he said. "When one town does it, another thinks it can try to, but not every town has financial problems."
Some departments, like Egg Harbor Township, are already in the process of bringing back officers they recently laid off. Mayor James J. McCullough said that he'd like to rehire all nine officers. Response times are critical in the sprawling suburb just outside Atlantic City, he said.
"We always felt we needed more officers, not less," he said. "But this state is in a serious financial crisis and that gets passed down to us."
The argument that a reduced police force would lead to an increase in crime hasn't been thoroughly studied, said Jon Shane, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York City.
"Everyone throws the response time around, or says lives will be lost, but I say, 'Show me the data,' " the former Newark police captain said. "When it comes to layoffs and the question, 'How many police do we need?' the answer is usually: As many as the mayor and city are willing to pay for."
Alterman, who filed a lawsuit to try to stop police layoffs in Stafford Township, Ocean County, said that fewer officers put communities at risk.
"There's going to be less officers available on the street," he said. "The public will not be as safe, absolutely."