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The Fight Over The Future Of A $22 Million Police Department

Six months since a study recommended sweeping changes to Bergen County Police Department, none have come.

The Fight Over The Future Of A $22 Million Police Department The Fight Over The Future Of A $22 Million Police Department

Note: This story was published on Dec. 4, 2011

Six months after a study called for sweeping changes to the Bergen County Police Department, none of the study's central recommendations have been implemented as the fight over the future of the agency continues, a fight that has seemingly chilled the relationship of two county leaders who were allies this time last year. 

Bergen County officials are currently waiting for a second report on the county police that’s supposed to be completed early next year, this one by a committee created by County Executive Kathleen Donovan.

Critics - most notably Sheriff Michael Saudino, who swept into office with Donovan last November - argue the panel is composed primarily of political appointees rather than the law enforcement experts who authored the first report.

The $623,000 Law Enforcement Consolidation Study, a 191-page report from Guidepost Solutions, recommended both seismic changes – include three ways to downsize or eliminate the county police department – as well as more modest proposals for cost-cutting, like reducing car fleets or scrapping mounted police units.

“They’ve now had the report for a greater number of days than it took to write it,’’ said Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli, whose office paid for the Guidepost study. “I would hate to see it go to waste.’’

“It’s a very thorough report,’’ he said, emphasizing he hasn’t endorsed any of the specific proposals. “It addresses a lot of issues. It addresses the specific savings. It addresses the legal component.’’

Bergen County Police Chief Brian Higgins, however, sees flaws in the Guidepost study, which he argues is biased against his department and contains innaccurate information. For example, the study says the county police had 16,214 calls for service in 2010, a figure that makes the department’s workload the lowest in the county in terms of calls per officer.

Higgins maintains that the actual workload was about 57,000 calls, which would have put the department more in the middle of the rankings.

“It seems they took whatever numbers they could to make the county police look bad," Higgins said.

The county police have a strong ally in Donovan, according to her chief of staff, Jeanne Baratta.

“She likes having the county police,’’ Baratta said. “But she’s going to look at all the information and do what’s best for the taxpayers of Bergen County.’’

Baratta said that Donovan was not available to be interviewed for this story, but that the county executive found the cost of the Guidepost study "outrageous."

Bergen is one of only two New Jersey counties – Union is the other – that still have a county police department, according to the New Jersey Association of Counties (NJAC).

Over the past 20 years, Essex and Hudson counties have eliminated their county police and Middlesex dropped its park police department. As a result, in most places in New Jersey, countywide law enforcement is handled by the prosecutor and the sheriff.

In Bergen, the county police department is the least expensive of the three countywide law enforcement agencies. Its total expenditures in 2010 were $21.9 million, according to the Guidepost report. In comparison, the prosecutor’s office spent $49.2 million and the sheriff’s department $34.7 million.

The county police department also has the fewest employees with 142, including 92 law enforcement officers, the study said. The prosecutor’s office has 254 employees, including 111 sworn officers, and the sheriff has 194 employees with 152 sworn officers.

Despite its size, the county police department also generates the most money of the three countywide agencies, the study said.

The Guidepost study said much of money generated by the county police, through such things as enforcement of truck safety laws, would still flow into the county coffers if county police were eliminated and sheriff’s officers were trained in that work. That’s another point that Higgins takes exception to. He argues that New Jersey law currently only allows the State Police and Bergen County Police to issue summonses to overweight trucks.

“It’s not as simple as just giving the sheriffs some training and letting them do the truck inspections,’’ Higgins said.

In some ways, the impending decisions on law enforcement consolidation shape up as a contest between the sheriff’s department and the county police.

In a letter dated November 1, Saudino accused Donovan of playing politics with the issue by creating her own advisory committee with a “predisposed outcome.’’

“Your purported committee's lack of experience and its admitted political bias is glaring,’’ Saudino said in the letter addressed to the panel’s chairman, Fletcher Creamer.

Saudino also questioned why Higgins has not taken a more prominent stand discussing the Guidepost report with county officials and the public.

“If I was the chief, I’d be out there fighting to show my department was needed,’’ Saudino said. “He chose a different path.’’

When asked for a response, Higgins said, “I’m a Christian man. I’m going to fight hard for the county police, but I’m going to do it in a gentlemanly and professional manner. I’m not going to enter the political arena. I’m not going to take a shot back at the sheriff.’’

Baratta, Donovan's chief of staff, was more pointed.

"Sheriff Saudino should be focused on how to maximize efficiencies and reduce costs within his core functions and eliminate the extraneous activities that he and his predecessors have undertaken," she said.

While most of the focus on the Guidepost report has been on the issue of whether to eliminate the county police, the study is packed with other information and analysis on the department:

  • About half of county police patrol posts are not covered about half of the time during daytime shifts. For example, the Route 208 patrol post gets covered less than 10 percent of the time, while the loop at Rotes 4, 46 and 17 gets assigned less than 20 percent of the time.
  • The number of traffic summonses issued by the county police has declined by 30 percent, from 64,008 in 2006 to 44,496 in 2010.
  • The sheriff, county police and several municipal police departments all have special operations units commonly known as SWAT teams. If no major consolidation takes place, the sheriff’s Special Operations Group (SOG) could be eliminated and its functions shifted into the county police SWAT team.
  • The county police water search and recovery unit only hunts for evidence, a task that could be handled by a similar state police unit at a savings of $90,000.
  • Bergen has 20 police officers trained in assisting the medical examiner’s office at death scenes – a task commonly performed by civilians and not law enforcement personnel in other places. Eliminating that practice would cut county police overtime and allow better deployment of resources.
  • The county police and sheriff both have their own K9 units. Consolidating them would save administrative costs.
  • The county police and sheriff both have mounted units and the sheriff a motorcycle unit that “are largely ceremonial and do not contribute to public safety.’’
  • In 2010, 64 percent of the motor vehicle crashes handled by the department happened in just three towns – Hackensack, Paramus and Teaneck, according to a county-funded study.
  • That same year, 70 percent of its patrol service requests were in Hackensack, Paramus and Mahwah, and 70 percent of its investigations were in Hackensack and Paramus, the study said.

The imbalance stems from the department’s role in focusing on county-owned facilities and property, the study acknowledges. But if all calls currently handled by the county police were shifted to municipal law enforcement officers, the extra work would have “minimal” impact on the local agencies, the study concludes.

When asked about the study’s statistics that show the county police do most of their work in a handful of towns, Higgins said there were some simple explanations for that.

“Obviously, we can’t be in 70 different places at once,’’ he said. “But we don’t have to be. All the different municipal police departments have different needs for the county police. It depends on what the towns need from us.’’

Higgins also said some of the imbalance stems from where county police are located. For example, he said, if someone walked into the county police office in at the county government complex in Hackensack to report an incident, that reported would get listed as a Hackensack case.

Higgins conceded the accuracy of some of the study’s findings, such as the fact that the county police department’s inability to cover all its patrol posts.

“That’s because we’re evolving,’’ Higgins said, adding that he was in the process of restructuring the patrol assignments.

But Higgins took exception with the study’s focus on things like the bomb squad and medical examiner’s work as examples of waste.

“We don’t have a full-time bomb squad, we don’t have these guys sitting in a room waiting to get called,’’ the chief said. “All of our officers are trained to do several things. That’s the basis of the county police.’’  Officers assigned to the bomb squad or medical examiner’s duty primarily serve on patrols and only do the specialized work when it’s called for.

Every year, under state law, the main law enforcement agencies in the county meet as a review board that identifies the core and specialized functions of each agency. Molinelli said that the 2012 review, which will probably be done in January, may address some of the Guidepost suggestions for merging or eliminating specialized services within the county law enforcement structure.

“I will have a lot to say at the meeting this year,’’ Saudino said.

But Higgins questioned the legitimacy of the law enforcement review board’s report, saying the current document delineating duties isn’t being followed. For example, he said, the report does not assign patrol work to the sheriff’s department, but sheriff’s officers do conduct patrols according to the Guidepost study.

Meanwhile, the Bergen County Freeholders also have been researching the issue. The prosecutor and sheriff already have submitted reports to the public safety committee, said its chairman, Freeholder Robert Hermansen. But the panel is still waiting to hear from Higgins.

“He said I would have it very soon,’’ said Hermansen. “What I consider to be very soon and what somebody else considers to be very soon may be two different things.’’

“He’s right, I didn’t expect it to take so long,’’ Higgins said of delays in responding to the freeholders. “I’ll fall on my sword on that one.’’

Under the main consolidation scenarios, the sheriff’s department has lots to gain. The office stands to grow in terms of size, scope of duties and prestige if the county police were eliminated or streamlined. Guidepost offered three basic ways to do that.

The first possibility would be reducing the size of the county police department by cutting 23 officers and two civilians, which the study said would save $2.9 million per year. This could be done within 60 days, the study said.

The second option outlined by Guidepost would be an initial reduction in the size of the county police department, followed by a transfer of its remaining functions to the sheriff’s office, which would save $54 million per year. That could be done within 150 days, the study said.

The third scenario would be the elimination of the county police and transfer of its key functions to the sheriff’s department, which the study said would save $17 million. That would take a year, according to Guidepost.

“What we need now is for the freeholders to make a decision, once and for all, what they’re going to do with this,’’ said Molinelli.

But Hermansen said he was not prepared to cut employees as part of any changes in Bergen County’s law enforcement structure.

“I don’t think we should be laying off workers if we don’t have to,’’ he said. The freeholder chairman also said he was not looking to make dramatic changes.

“I don’t believe that consolidation is the right word,’’ said Hermansen. “I think the right word is share.’’

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