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Bergen County panel opposes police consolidation

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

CLIFFVIEW PILOT HAS IT FIRST: A blue-ribbon panel has rejected a series of recommendations for consolidating the Bergen County Police Department within the sheriff’s office, saying that it would give the elected sheriff too much unchecked power. It instead suggested eliminating or restructuring smaller units in each agency and urged municipalities to join the county emergency dispatch service out of Mahwah.

It also urged that the Sheriff’s Office put an end to its tip line, saying it has “the potential to intrude upon the prerogatives of local municipal police departments.”

Overall, though, the results of the study by the Bergen County Law Enforcement Consolidation Task Force are far from blockbusting.

The panel ended up rejecting most of the recommendations by a consultant hired to suggest ways of making countywide law enforcement more efficient, while offering some less-drastic suggestions of its own, in a long-awaited, 35-page report received by county Executive Kathleen Donovan last week and released this afternoon.

“Bergen County’s system of law enforcement works and works well,” the panel concluded. “This underscored our decision to avoid recommending changes that provide limited or short-term savings and risked creating roadblocks to, or gaps in, security.”

The biggest difference from the recommendations of a $623,000 study by New York-based Guidepost Solutions is the panel’s opposition to consolidating responsibilities of the Bergen County Police Department under the auspices of the sheriff.

“Much has changed” since Guidepost recommended that the BCPD cut back on patrolling and consider consolidating many services within the sheriff’s department, the task force wrote.

“There exists pending legislation on pension and benefit reforms, municipalities are experiencing an increased level of retirements, and the state mandated 2% caps on municipal spending and taxes posed replacement and manpower challenges.

“Informal discussions” with various law enforcement professionals “reflect that the BCPD is being relied upon as a force multiplier and mutal aid responder…. Therefore, the task force considers a significant reduction in force … ill-advised at this time.”

Reasons for shifting services from the BCPD to the sheriff’s office “are not well-supported,” the panel concluded.

Nowhere does the Guidepost study address additional costs for training officers, transferring vehicles and supplies, renovating offices and “perhaps most importantly, legal fees related to the resolution of contract issues,” the report says.

In fact, it says, county police are also exempted from FICA but wouldn’t be if they were absorbed into the sheriff’s office: That could mean an extra $568,000 the county would have to cough up for Social Security payments the first year.

Bumping rights would also come into play, leaving an agency with “junior members being pushed out at the bottom” and a staff “that is disproportionately made up of senior members, whose normal transitions based on retirement and promotion are artificially delyaed or hastened.”

The panel had much deeper concerns, however, which it said also weren’t addressed by Guidepost.

For one thing, it questioned “whether having an elected official in charge of what will arguably become the largest law enforcement agency in the county is advisable.”

The proposals put forth in the Guidepost study would collect “all county law enforcement and specialized functions, in addition to house security, foreclosures, process service, all correction functions and the administration of the jail under one person: the Sheriff,” the task force said. “Since the Sheriff is a constitutional officer, other branches of government would be limited in their ability to provide checks and balances.

“Given the constitutional requirement that the Sheriff must stand for election every three years, continuity of law enforcement decisions within this newly expanded Sheriff’s Office could shift dramatically,” the panel added.

T he task force did urge county police, the sheriff’s office and the prosecutor’s office to immediately freeze all hiring and promotions until they can reduce staff. It also said they should all take a harder line in negotiating fringe benefits in public employee contracts.

Among other findings, it recommended that county police disband its motorcycle unit, “even for ceremonial purposes,” because of the cost of insurance and potential lawsuits. BCPD Chief Brian Higgins agrees with the move. The mounted police unit also needs to go, the panel said.

At the same time, it said that Sheriff Michael Saudino’s SWAT-like Special Operations Group, which isn’t certified, should be canned, and those duties handled exclusively by county police’s SWAT team. This shouldn’t be confused with the Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team (S.E.R.T.), a specially trained unit that handles incidents at the jail.

The report notes that county Prosecutor John L. Molinelli has begun exploring the formation of a new SWAT team that would employ municipal police, but the panel urdged him to consider that the county police is already handling the work well and, thus, eliminates the need for “creating another layer of law enforcement.”

The panel said the county should examine duplication of evidence collected at crime scenes by both the prosecutor’s office and the sheriff’s Bureau of Criminal Identification. But it deflected Molinelli’s suggestion that his office handle those responsibilities entirely pending further study.

The task force said the sheriff should cut back on traffic enforcement, which “is not a core mission or a specialized function” of the office. The duties should never run into overtime, according to the report.

The panel also urged the sheriff to bag his tips line.

“Decisions regarding the investigation of such tips should rest with local municipal police departments,” the task force said. “The Sheriff’s Office should not be involved in these investigations.”

If it costs the locals too much to run their own lines, the prosecutor’s office should handle it, the report says.

The task force rejected a recommendation that the BCPD’s Water Search and Recovery Unit be eliminated, leaving the work to municipal departments, and that the Medical Examiner’s Office be “civilianized.”

However, the panel said functions in all three county law enforcement agencies can better be combined under fewer supervisors, particularly in the sheriff’s office.

It also said the county could save money if more towns consolidate 911 emergency dispatch services at the county center in Mahwah and if the sheriff’s office privatizes process serving.

“If towns utilize the dispatch center located in Mahwah in greater numbers, significant savings could be realized in municipal budgets,” the report says. “Law enforcement dollars could be used for policing instead of dispatch.”

Although the task force agreed that the sheriff’s department should maintain security for the courthouse and the jail, it supports the Guidepost recommendation that private security be hired for various other functions throughout all law enforcement agencies in the county — including process serving, ordinarily handled by sheriff’s officers.

Savings will eventually come “from reductions in fringe benefits and in later years from a reduced number of retirees receiving benefits,” the task force wrote.


The Bergen County Law Enforcement Consolidation Task Force was made up of: Chairman J. Fletcher Creamer ; Jeffrey Bader , Woodcliff Lake councilman and police commissioner; Freeholder Maura R. DeNicola , former mayor and councilwoman; Robert Martin , Jersey City Deputy Chief of Police; and Superior Court Judge William Meehan , presiding judge, Bergen County.

The group got somehwat defensive toward the end of its report:

“Eight months ago … none of us could have imagined how difficult it would be. The task force’s existence and motives have been questioned. The pace at which we have worked has been judged not as evidence of our thoroughness as volunteers, but as evidence we are engaged in some improper activity…. We hope the report puts to an end the distractions and instead begins a constructive process moving forward.”

For the full study, click the link here: Bergen County Home Page



It also said Saudino should “review redundancies with upper level management, including the appointed Undersheriff and the permanent staff of captains and the warden,” and added that any new hires “should be bases solely on the need for the protection of residents, not historical practice.”

It gave credit to the sheriff for eliminating the position of chief and noted that systems are

in place for “approving and monitoring overtime” in the BCPD and for both Molinelli’s and Saudino’s offices.

However, the panel urged the county to “adopt an overtime management database for all departments, but especially for law enforcement. It should allow for the creation of real-time reports that supply the necessary data to allow supervisors to adjust staffing to maximize efficiciency and avoid excessive overtime.”

It also urged the county to improve its communications systems among the BCPD, the prosecutor’s office and municipal police to remove barriers to sharing information. That includes a computerized system athat better monitors overtime, sick time and other time off.

“This would allow supervisors to more accurately examine manpower needs and schedule staff for maximum efficiency and savings,” the panel’s report says.

“An area that needs further review, by content experts, is the interface of agencies within the current data management and information sharing system,” the panel wrote. “The system purchased by the Prosecutor’s Office does not easily interface with records management systems and reporting softward already in place within many municipalities.”

It urged that “future system upgrades be better coordinated” and that the prosecutor’s office standardize record managements systems throughout all law enforcement in the county.

If individual towns can’t afford that, the panel said, the prosecutor could cover the cost with forfeiture funds.

The various county agencies should also have the same email server, it said.

T

ask force members met with several law enforcement officers and officials “outside of  meeting and off the record,” the report says. “They are increasingly concerned about reductions in force for budgetary reasons.

“They admit that their individual departments are reacing irreducible minimus. Mutual aid is becoming a standard response mechanism by departments unable to hire or looking to reduce overtime.”

Among those consulted:

Lodi Police Chief Vincent Caruso , president of the Bergen County Police Chiefs Association ;
Bergen County Police Chief Brian Higgins ;
Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli ;
Workers Compensation Judge (retired) Ray Farrington;
Bergen County IT Director Ben Kezmarsky

( “Sheriff Michael Saudino chose not to be interviewed by the task force on the advise of his legal counsel,” the panel wrote. The task force relied on Saudino’s written responses to the Guidepost study. )

The report packs plenty of hyperbole and bravura. For instance:

“[T]he process that this task force is engaged in is nothing new. As a matter of act, our system of law enforcement demands regular review and restructuring to remain responsive to the people it serves. To avoid that responsibility because of pressure exerted by special interests of the self-interest of individuals for whom the status quo is beneficial is the worst kind of political cowardice.”

However, the panel concluded that finding answers wasn’t easy.

“Any solution will require compromise and sacrifice by elected officials and members of law enforcement. The task force is concerned that it is those two hurdles which could prove insurmountable. Yet for all of us who have sworn an oath to represent or protect county residents, or draw a salary derived from the work of those same taxpayers, we are obligated to try.

“The public has grown weary of ever-increasing taxes to support law enforcement salaries and benefits,” the report says, “but they are equally concerned by budget cuts that result in a reducted police presence within their communities.

“Bergen also has a strong sense of home rule within  its 70 towns. Discussions of mergers or consolidations are entertained, but often rejected over a variety of concerns.

“Some may object to the lack of direct control by local elected officials over budget and staffing,” it says, while “others have concerns that non-local police officers will be insensitive to local concerns.”

The bulk of the report is a cut-and-paste of the individual functions of the various county and municipal police agencies, taken directly from the Law Services Plan that the state requires all county prosecutors to keep. It wasn’t until nearly halfway through the report that the task force began addressing the Guidepost recommendations.

The primary message appeared to be that whatever county officials decide to do, they should move decisively but not hastily.

“To make changes that provide limited or short-term savings that could in turn create confusion or temporary gaps in coverage is not acceptable,” the report says.

“The end goal is always constant: efficient, cost-effective services. The means by which that is achieved is up to the elected official.”

Donovan created the committee last year to study Guidepost’s proposal to reconfigure law enforcement by virtually gutting the county police department and placing the bulk of its operations under the county sheriff.

County freeholders have been awaiting the committee’s report before conducting public hearings on Donovan’s proposed spending plans for the county police, prosecutor’s office and sheriff’s department.

Meanwhile, battles raged between Donovan and Saudino over the necessity of the county squad.

J. Fletcher Creamer, a well-known and highly respected North Jersey contractor, headed the committee, which presented its final, 35-page report to Donovan last week. She reviewed the recommendations and produced some of her own.

Although the Guidepost study emphasized consolidating and possibly eliminating the BCPD, the department has entered into agreements with towns eager to cut costs by having it handle their public safety responsibilities.

The state of law enforcement throughout the county has been in tumult, with some local departments insisting they should remain as they are, and the police union for the sheriffs insisting that Donovan is acting in her best interests, not those of taxpayers.

Donovan has pointed to the potential cost savings of folding the smaller departments – with their individual administrations and operating costs — into the larger existing county agency.

Molinelli joined the fray earlier this year when he said he would “recodify” the authority of municipal police chiefs so that the county PD can’t expand into their jurisdictions without formal agreements.

This was unnecessary, Higgins said, because his department wouldn’t do such work without a signed agreement.

For instance, the county police department earlier this year entered into an agreement with Teterboro to patrol the section of town that previously had been handled by Little Ferry.

Talks are also underway in Demarest, which is expected to soon ratify an agreement to have the BCPD take responsibility for policing the borough.

This comes after Elmwood Park’s governing body officially rejected a merger and a potential deal with Carlstadt fell through when the Borough Council received concessions from its police union to help curb costs.

Molinelli said his concern was over individual towns trying to hash out their own private arrangements. His goal, he said, was to officially vest police chiefs with the authority to oppose any attempts at consolidation by civilian officials, such as mayors and councils.

Higgins, meanwhile, said runaway property taxes in Bergen County will only increase the need for his department to assume policing in more towns.




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