With more than 3,000 New Jersey police either testing positive for COVID-19 or in quarantine, some police departments have been having trouble putting enough officers out to enforce stay-at-home and other orders, which people continue to violate.
State police have been reporting that as much as 10% of New Jersey’s total complement of officers are either ill with the disease or in quarantine on any given day. A State Police spokesman said that on Thursday, 623 officers had tested positive for COVID-19 and 2,712 were self-quarantining, representing nearly 10% of the state’s 34,000 police officers.
At the same time, departments are inundated with violations of several emergency orders issued by Gov. Phil Murphy over the last few weeks. For instance, the Newark Police Department’s COVID-19 task force issued 34 summonses for emergency order violations on April 7 and police in Paterson issued 40 summonses on April 6.
To ensure communities have enough manpower to enforce these orders and perform regular policing duties, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced earlier this week that police departments can hire retired police officers as Special Law Enforcement Officers (SLEO IIs). Murphy authorized this in an executive order.
“Law enforcement officers are facing a perfect storm when it comes to manpower, because they are being called on to tackle new challenges and take on more responsibilities in the battle against this pandemic — at the very time that hundreds of officers are battling COVID-19 or are quarantined,” said Grewal in a statement. “Not since 9/11 or Superstorm Sandy have law enforcement across our state experienced such strain, and some of the steps we are outlining to address the manpower challenges mirror the steps we took after those events.”
It won’t affect pensions
Several retired police officers said they thought at least some former law enforcement officials would be interested in returning to work to help in the current emergency, given it would not impact their ability to collect a pension.
“This is a situation that can get very bad very quickly,” said Joseph Valdora, president of the New Jersey Retired Police and Firemen’s Association, in addressing the current shortage of officers. Valdora, a retired captain of the Trenton Police Department, said, “There’s no shed out behind a police station that you keep extra cops in when you need them. The best that you can have is people like myself and people in my organization that are able and willing to pitch in.”
Retired officers who previously served in good standing in New Jersey are eligible to be SLEO IIs. SLEO IIs can exercise the full powers and duties of a regular police officer. Retired officers can also be hired to work in administrative roles.
Facilitating the hiring of retired police officers is part of a series of measures that Grewal’s office has taken to address the lack of manpower due to the pandemic. Other measures, outlined by Grewal in a memo to all law enforcement leaders, will allow police recruits to work in administrative roles and security personnel and military police officers in the National Guard to receive training to conduct law enforcement actions in an emergency.
Valdora said SLEO IIs can be a valuable resource for police departments at this time, adding that retired police still possess the needed knowledge and skills.
Past budget cuts may leave some police departments significantly understaffed, making the hiring of retirees necessary during a pandemic, he added. Retirees can assist departments by taking reports and conducting clerical work, which would allow other officers in administrative units to work in the field.
Recent retirees could ‘do the job right away’
“Some of us haven’t been retired that long and they could go out and do the job right away,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for people that are retired to make a major contribution at a time of crisis.”
“[Retirees] will fill in. They know the drill,” said Carl Padula, president of the Passaic County Chapter of the New Jersey Retired Police and Firemen Association and director of Passaic County Community College’s Public Safety Academy. “Police work is police work. These guys have been doing it for 25, 30 years. It’s easy to bring it back.”
Doug Hogate, president of the Salem County Chapter of the New Jersey Retired Police and Firemen Association, said however that some retired officers may not want to return due to health concerns and fear of being exposed to COVID-19.
“It’s a good opportunity for guys to come back to work if they choose to do that but with the circumstances, the consensus of the guys that I’ve talked to are against it,” Hogate said.
Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose addressed the health concerns of retired police officers, explaining that rather than being on the front lines of law enforcement, retired officers are encouraged to perform clerical work away from the public, which poses less risk for contracting COVID-19.
“There’s some people that are retired in the pension system that are only 43 years old, 44 years old. They’re not old, so I don’t look at age,” Ambrose said. “Anybody can do the function if there’s a need. Right now, Newark does not have a need for it, but I’m happy that option’s there.”