How we tracked the pay of 24,000 cops (2023)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of The Pay Check, an in-depth look at every dollar earned by 24,000 law enforcement officers across New Jersey in 2019. Find the full database here: The Pay Check.

The question seemed like a simple one: How much do police officers in New Jersey really earn?

Yet it took two years and more than 700 public records requests for NJ Advance Media to get the answer.

A searchable database published today for tracks every dollar paid in 2019 to 21,000 local police officers and 2,900 state troopers. That includes not only the six-figure base salaries police made on average, but also the more than $24,000 of additional compensation they typically pulled in, usually through overtime or off-duty details.

The database offers the first comprehensive accounting of police pay throughout New Jersey, an endeavor that researchers say has few parallels in the nation.

“You’ve actually got some pretty incredible data,” said Aaron Chalfin, a professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania. He has previously collected salary and overtime information from several large city departments, he said, but nothing at NJ Advance Media’s scale.

Indeed, it took a massive effort from a team of reporters, even though government payroll records are as public a document as any in New Jersey. The project stretched a pandemic, and lasted so long that three of its reporters left NJ Advance Media’s employment before it was completed.

“This is important work,” said Jason Williams, a professor of justice studies at Montclair State University, who called discussions of policing “the most American conversation you can have.”

“I’m so happy you were able to get this together,” Williams said.

The Pay Check: Database | Glossary of Terms | How We Did It

The hurdle: Because local police departments are, well, local, each municipality keeps those records on its own, meaning there is no centralized source from which they can be obtained.

And each municipality produces those records in different ways.

Oh, and there are 463 local police departments, some of which aren’t happy sharing how much they pay their members.


NJ Advance Media began requesting officers’ earnings in late 2019, and received the last pieces of data only in November, when State Police provided an accounting of its troopers.

One municipality — Carlstadt, whose police chief had the highest salary in the state — still hasn’t provided reliable records, despite its requirements under the Open Public Records Act. (On Jan. 24, the borough provided the figures, and the database has been updated to reflect them.)

With each department, NJ Advance Media asked for a breakdown of their officers’ total earnings, separated into categories such as base pay, overtime, outside jobs and any other compensation. The request asked that the records be provided in a searchable computer spreadsheet, to allow the data to be easily integrated.

Some communities responded within days, and sent records that broke pay into easily understood labels. But others sent records that lacked officers’ names or that contained only their base salaries — or that were simply indecipherable.

Adding to those barriers: About 150 police departments ultimately provided only scanned printouts of their records, which sometimes had to be manually input into the media company’s growing database. That clerical work alone required hundreds of hours of effort to sift through more than 5,500 pages of documents.

The public deserves more transparency about how much police contracts and their many perks are costing taxpayers, said Regina Egea, the president of the Garden State Initiative, a conservative think tank. While police officers hold a lot of good will in their communities, “all of these things ought to be inspected,” she said.

“It doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be public scrutiny,” Egea said.

NJ Advance Media’s database attempts to break down police pay into as many categories as possible, recognizing that some towns were unable or unwilling to provide those details, and that others’ records were unreliable on that level.

At a minimum, the database contains officers’ total earnings in 2019, compared to their salary that year, showing how much additional income they received.

For most departments, figures such as overtime and extra duty earnings are also provided.

To augment the trove of information, for this project reporters also reviewed more than 100 police contracts, analyzed the timecard and scheduling records of 14 of the highest-earning officers, and conducted 59 interviews, including of law enforcement officials, municipal managers and finance directors and experts on policing. Reporters unsuccessfully sought comment from dozens of others.

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But it was the raw numbers that drove the effort, even as comparing one department’s data with another presented a daunting and time-consuming set of challenges.

Because each town accounts for how it pays its officers differently, even as simple a category as regular pay varied from municipal record to municipal record. For instance, some towns broke out vacations, holidays and personal days separately, while others put everything into a single box — a difference that could represent tens of thousands of dollars when officers’ salaries were compared across departments.

To establish uniformity, NJ Advance Media overlaid each municipality’s data with 2019 state pension and retirement records from the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System, which covers local police officers. For state police, data from the New Jersey State Police Retirement System was used.

That approach allowed reporters to exclude employees who were not cops, because many municipalities also gave figures for their dispatchers, crossing guards and secretaries. It also revealed hundreds of officers who were left out of the records the towns initially provided, leading to another round of public records requests that asked for their earnings by name.

A note on salary: In accounting for that portion of earnings in the database, NJ Advance Media relied upon the state pension data, which includes officers’ so-called pensionable salary, a base pay figure used to calculate their future retirement benefits.

By using those numbers, the database avoided department-by-department discrepancies in how regular earnings were recorded.

That held for 86% of the database’s 23,889 officers. But in some cases, pensionable salary would have been misleading, and in those, the database used the municipal figures.

For example, take an officer who retired in 2019, or a rookie who started her career months into the year. Their pension earnings reflect their salary if they worked the entire year, though their actual regular earnings were less. Similar cases hold for officers who went on medical leave, workers’ compensation, were deployed by the military or were suspended or fired from their jobs.

To ensure accuracy, NJ Advance Media hired an independent expert to review its methodology and whether it was reasonable. Ray Caprio, a professor at Rutgers University’s Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, also works on the union side of police contract arbitrations, where he serves as an expert witness on police compensation.

“Being familiar with both police contracts and the many subtleties associated with actual ‘pay,’ I have been particularly impressed with the level of detail to which you and your team have gone in order to secure a comprehensive view of salaries both within and between municipalities,” Caprio wrote in his assessment.

Caprio called the project “as accurate an accounting of what police officers were paid as may be humanly possible.”

Recognizing that any large dataset can contain inaccuracies, NJ Advance Media invites any corrections or clarifications to its database. Input can be submitted to

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Riley Yates is the lead data reporter for and The Star-Ledger. He has spent most of his career covering criminal justice. Reach him at

Katie Kausch covers crime, courts and breaking news across New Jersey for and The Star-Ledger. Reach her at

Nick Devlin is a reporter on the data and investigations team. Reach him at


Seth Vincent is a senior news apps developer for NJ Advance Media. Reach him at

Cassidy Grom was a news app designer for NJ Advance Media.


Andrea Levy is an illustrator with Advance Local. Reach her at


Ashleigh Graf is the senior managing producer of data and investigations for and The Star-Ledger. Reach her at

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Jessica Beym, managing producer

Christopher Kelly, senior director for news and innovation

Brianna Kudisch, staff writer

Jessica Mazzola, managing producer

Alex Napoliello, former staff writer

Patti Sapone, supervising photographer

Kevin Shea, managing producer

Stephen Stirling, former staff writer

S.P. Sullivan, staff writer

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