PATERSON, NJ — More than 20 percent of Paterson’s police officers will be eligible for retirement by next summer, a potential exodus that officials say could threaten the crime-fighting gains achieved in the city this year.
Officials said about 85 of Paterson’s 417 police officers have reached or are on the verge of getting to 25 years of service – a key pension milestone – by next summer.
Mayor Andre Sayegh’s transition report says “there is a high probability that many will retire” because the police union’s contract expires next July.
Veteran cops likely will opt to put in their pension papers, officials said, so their health benefits will be determined by the current union contract. Staying on the job, officials added, could mean risking lesser medical coverage under a new contract.
“This could create a severe vacuum,” said Paterson police director Jerry Speziale.
Paterson has struggled to bolster the ranks of its police force ever since budget cuts resulted in the layoff of 125 officers in the spring of 2011. Just prior to those terminations, the department had 500 cops. After those layoffs, Paterson suffered an increase in violent crime, including shootings and homicides.
But in 2017, the city had its lowest violent crime statistics in three decades, according to reports compiled by the New Jersey State Police. So far in 2018, homicides are down 70 percent and the number of shooting incidents has dropped almost 25 percent, according to data compiled by Paterson Press.
Speziale said the city will do whatever it can to prevent a precipitous drop in its police manpower. .
The director also said the city may look to hire already-trained officers who have been laid off by other municipalities for fiscal reasons.
Paterson’s fire department faces a similar retirement drain, according to Sayegh’s transition report. But the document did not provide any numbers on how many firefighters were nearing retirement.
Police Chief Troy Oswald said retirement waves tend to happen in cycles. About 50 years ago, Paterson hired a large group of rookie cops, and when those officers finally retired in the 1990s, the city went through another surge of hiring, he said. Now the officers who started in the 1990s are getting ready to put in their pension papers, he said.
“It’s not the end of the world,” Oswald said.
Paterson must get state approval before it hires anyone, as part of the fiscal monitoring that takes place under the transition aid program, which provided the city with $27 million last year.
Officials said the state tends not to allow the city to hire new recruits until after retirements have taken effect. As a result, officials said, there’s a chance Paterson’s new hiring effort may not be able to keep up with the departures.
A state spokeswoman said New Jersey’s Division of Local Government Services, the agency that monitors Paterson’s finances, has been “in close coordination with Paterson regarding its staffing needs and will work with the city to keep staffing at appropriate levels.”
“As the city’s budget develops, the staffing needs of the city’s departments, including police, will be taken into consideration,” said the spokeswoman, Lisa Ryan.
Councilman Michael Jackson, who is chairman of the public safety committee, sees a silver lining in the impending wave of retirements. He said many of Paterson’s oldest police officers did not grow up in the city and don’t live there now.
Jackson said Paterson will have an opportunity to fill more of those police jobs with truly homegrown officers. “I’d rather have someone who’s willing to go the extra mile because it’s their home,” the councilman said.
Jackson also said he thinks the departures of veteran officers making top salaries may free up money to increase the overall number of cops in Paterson because their replacement would be getting entry-level pay.
“You may be able to double the count,” Jackson said.
From The Paterson Press