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Donovan chief of staff cites ‘breakdown of professionalism’ in county police, trooper confrontation

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot File Photo
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: In her administration’s first criticism of the behavior of two Bergen County police officers who went face-to-face and chest-to-chest with a state trooper on the NJ Turnpike, county Executive Kathleen Donovan’s chief of staff tonight referred to the incident as “an unfortunate breakdown of professionalism.”

Baratta, responding to an email from CLIFFVIEW PILOT , issued a statement from Donovan ( above, right ) addressing a call from a trio of Democratic freeholders that the county executive replace Bergen’s police chief, Brian Higgins ( above, left ), in his dual job as public safety director and “address the lack of leadership” in his department.

In her response, Donovan called the freeholders’ statement “another cheap political trick.”

“My number one concern is the safety of our residents. I’m not at all interested in furthering the political circus that some people are trying to make out of law enforcement in Bergen County,” Donovan added. “I want to protect lives, and the county police have demonstrated for 96 years that they are an integral part of cooperative law enforcement among the 70 municipalities in Bergen County.”

At the same time, Baratta wrote:

“This was an unfortunate breakdown of professionalism and the matter has already been investigated by the County Police and discipline was meted out forthwith. Chief Higgins, with the County Executive’s approval, immediately instituted an investigation and disciplined the officers involved.

“The County Executive has no intention of replacing County Police Chief Brian Higgins as the director of public safety for Bergen County,” Baratta added. “Chief Higgins is a consummate professional and we have every confidence in him. He immediately addressed the matter and made no excuses.”

Higgins, who has not responded to texts, phone calls, emails or messages left with others for him by CLIFFVIEW PILOT , told yesterday that he considered no one at fault.

“While Higgins said his department had “addressed” the officers’ actions, he made no specific mention of any discipline being handed out,” the article says.

Later in the day, Baratta officially confirmed that the two officers had been disciplined and a review of the incident closed. State Attorney General guidelines prevented her from elaborating, she said.

“The chief does the investigation. He makes a recommendation to the county executive and she decides on the discipline,” she told CLIFFVIEW PILOT .

Because he is both county police chief and public safety director, Higgins reports directly to Donovan (The county executive said she merged the two positions as a way of saving taxpayer dollars).

Neither he nor Baratta, speaking on behalf of the county executive, would disclose details of the traffic stop, nor would they say why it was carried out without notification to the NJSP, a common practice among local police departments.

Democratic Freeholders Joan Voss, Steve Tanelli and Tracy Zur issued their joint statement today after viewing a video from the trooper’s dashboard camera showing a profanity-laced confrontation that a plainclothes county detective and his supervisor had with the uniformed state officer:

They also renewed their insistence that Donovan support a merger of the Bergen County Police with the county Sheriff’s Office in order to “increase accountability and eliminate continued duplicative services within county law enforcement.”

Members of the Donovan administration privately have maintained that the trooper ignited the anger of both by drawing his gun briefly as he walked toward an unmarked mini-van the detective had used to pull over a motorist.

As the video shows, the trooper explained several times during the May 31 incident that his concerns were raised because carjackers wearing tactical vests and posing as police had recently victimized motorists on the Turnpike – over which the State Police have law enforcement jurisdiction.

Col. Rick Fuentes, the State Police superintendent, backed his trooper, citing two police-imposter carjacking incidents in the two weeks before the fateful confrontation.

CLIFFVIEW PILOT , which broke the story in June, was the first to publish the trooper’s report on Wednesday, then followed with the first posting of the dash-cam video – along with copies of a pair of “be on the lookout for” bulletins issued by State Police to law enforcement agencies throughout New Jersey about the carjackings ( SEE BELOW ).

Multiple sources confirmed that an NJSP major personally called on Higgins to address his officers’ behavior during the confrontation ( SEE: NJ State trooper confronted by Bergen County police on Turnpike, investigation demanded ).

RELATED: NJSP report: Trooper confronted by Bergen County police

The Democratic freeholders also pointed to another incident, this one in which a Republican colleague on the board, Maura DeNicola, was pulled over by a sheriff’s officer – only to have two county officers arrive on the scene a short time later.

The sheriff’s officer said he felt “distracted and intimidated” by his BCPD counterparts.

( CLIFFVIEW PILOT broke that story, as well: Bergen sheriff’s officer claims being ‘distracted, intimidated’ by county police after stopping freeholder )

Zur, who heads the freeholder board’s Law and Public Safety committee, demanded to know “what steps Chief Higgins has taken to address this unacceptable behavior in his own department.”

“With two reported incidents of potential improper conduct occurring less than 4 months apart, it is clear to me that the Police Chief lacks the necessary control over his department and that supervision is needed,” Zur wrote. “Until we are able to complete our plan to merge the County Police with Sheriff’s office, I would like to see a change in leadership at the Director’s level. I believe having one person hold both positions showed poor judgment by the County Executive.”

Those involved in the war over how best to police Bergen have been waiting for a consolidation plan promised by the Democrats several months ago.

Tanelli today said the plan they eventually come up with “will not only save money but [will] improve public safety in Bergen County.”

To which Baratta responded:

“We note the political nature of Democrats’ press release, as it took all the way until the second paragraph for them to again press their ongoing campaign to eliminate the county police,” she added. “If that’s not political grandstanding, then there is no such thing.

“Our priority in this incident was addressing the safety of ALL law enforcement officers and meting out appropriate discipline immediately after the investigation, not furthering a political agenda.”

Baratta also contended that two sheriff’s officers had recently been arrested but that “the Democrat Freeholders have remained silent on that. Clearly the Democrats have misplaced their priorities.”

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