CLIFTON, NJ — Clifton’s police department just became more understaffed as another junior officer leaves to take a job in Franklin Lakes, a higher-paying department.
Councilman William Gibson confirmed just before this week’s City Council meeting the officer is leaving the department next week for a greener paycheck.
“It is getting to be a serious situation,” Gibson, a former police officer, said.
This is not an isolated occurrence, Gibson said, as the department has lost at least 15 officers to higher paying police departments since 2013. At the core of the problem is the low starting salary Clifton pays new police officers, Gibson said.
Clifton’s starting yearly salary for rookie officers is $30,000. In year two it increases to $35,000. Many neighboring departments’ starting salaries hover around $40,000 or more, said the councilman.
The Council and PBA Local 36 recently arrived at a memorandum of agreement in their negotiations for a new contract, but the $30,000 starting salary for new police officers was not increased. The last contract expired in 2016.
Following the most recent negotiations, both sides weighed in on the reasons the starting salary wasn’t increased. City officials said they offered to increase the salary for rookies, but the union representatives didn’t agree to it. PBA officials said the raise wasn’t really a raise as the deal added 96 hours to the officers’ annual schedules.
Prior to the 2013 contract negotiations, the starting salary for rookie officers was $38,000. The council and police union negotiations brought it down to the current $30,000.
The department, which at full strength has 164 officers, routinely loses senior officers to retirement each year. Lately, it has been unable to recruit enough new officers to keep up with retirements, which has left the department understaffed by around 17 percent, Gibson said.
Why should residents care?
Down about two dozen officers, the department may have to become a more reactive force than proactive and crime prevention-focused.
“It takes away our ability to put out extra patrols…the extra cars that allow us to be proactive,” Detective Lt. Robert Bracken said.
The department’s crime prevention efforts will be at risk, Bracken said. Extra patrols in heavy crime areas can act as a deterrence.
It also can add to response time as police have to prioritize calls.
As a result of the shortage, the Advisory Committee for Individuals with Disabilities is advocating individuals with disabilities to photograph vehicles illegally parked in handicapped-accessible spots and take the violators to court in case are can’t respond in a timely manner.
What’s the problem?
During Tuesday’s council’s work session, Clifton Mayor James Anzaldi asked about the retention and hiring difficulties within the police department.
City officials recently authorized the department to hire 13 officers. Three were hired and attended the county police academy. One of the hires transferred to the West Milford Police Department, another was injured and left the force, leaving the one hire in Clifton.
The city had received a list of 200 applicants from the state Civil Service Commission, but only three remained when the vetting was completed.
That’s not an unheard-of ratio, City Manager Nick Villano said. “A safe guess is that 1 percent get hired,” he said. It takes 40 hours to vet one candidate for the department, Villano said.
Bracken said the review process is intensive and candidates are often turned down for “various reasons.”
After culling applicants, they may find as many as a couple of dozen qualified candidates. Often when they learn about the starting salary, they lose a large percentage.
The starting salary is a huge problem, Clifton Police Chief Mark Centurione has said.
Policemen’s Benevolent Association President Nick Hriczov said it’s not difficult to figure out the problem — starting salaries are too low.
Clifton PBA Local 36 officials have complained the city pays starting police officers around $15 an hour — less than special police officers, who can make $20 an hour. Even dispatchers start at a higher rate.
It can take several years for young officers to catch up with their peers, PBA officials said. They opt to take positions with departments that pay higher salaries.
For many young officers it can be a $20,000 to $30,000 a year difference, Hriczov said.
Bracken remains hopeful the city will have a large group of recruits in the next class scheduled for September.
The goal is to send 20 recruits to the next police academy class.
City council members said they are helping by permitting retired officers who hold the proper security clearance to assist the department’s special investigations division in the vetting process.
The efforts may solve the small recruit classes, but what will be the solution to retention problems?
In the year that it takes a recruit to hit the streets as a police officer, retention will remain an issue, say police officials.
“Retention issues continue to be problematic,” Bracken said. “Therefore, it is impossible to speculate on how the current hiring process will ultimately affect the manpower shortage in the near future.”
In the meantime, the department relies on overtime pay to staff the shifts.
In recent years the department has spent as much as $2 million on overtime, which is roughly 10 percent of the department’s salary budget.