Published in the Courier News, Monday, August 28, 2006
After gossip on blog, Plainfield mayor gets police escort
By CHRISTA SEGALINI
PLAINFIELD -- Since early July, two of the city's police officers have been given on-call assignments escorting Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs to, from and during public appearances -- a measure city officials said is necessary to ensure the mayor's safety.
The mayor has these police escorts even though no threats have been made against her since she took office this year, and she herself said she feels safe.
City Administrator Carlton McGee said the idea to provide the mayor with police escorts was made as a general suggestion earlier this year by city Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig.
But officials said it took an online blog that referenced rumors of death threats against Robinson-Briggs for the suggestion to become reality.
"No one wants to admit that there might be a need for a permanent security presence around the mayor," McGee said. "But then again, this is the first documented time that references to threats against a city mayor's life have been made."
Robinson-Briggs said she was initially opposed to the idea of having police escorts until she saw a July 7 online blog posted by Dan Damon, former Plainfield public information officer, that included gossip that threats had been made against her life.
"After the blog, I was again confronted by the public safety director, who emphatically told me he was going to assign a security detail for me, and for the first time I agreed to it," Robinson-Briggs said. "The way it was presented to me is that it wouldn't cost any additional money to do it."
Hellwig, who took over the position of public safety director this year, declined to comment on the decision and referred all questions about the security detail to McGee.
Damon said the blog was nothing but gossip and that he put the issue to rest in subsequent blogs, in which he posted confirmation from Plainfield police Chief Edward Santiago that no threats had been made against Robinson-Briggs' life.
Santiago declined to comment on the issue, but McGee confirmed that no death threats have been made against Robinson-Briggs since she took office.
Assemblyman Jerry Green, D-Plainfield, said the contents of the July 7 blog were the result of a conversation he had with City Councilman Cory Storch, in which he told Storch he felt Robinson-Briggs should not hold a news conference on what the city is doing to combat crime for fear she would become a target for retaliation.
Green said Storch told Damon about that conversation, and the information was posted on Damon's blog as a "Heard in the Street" item, in which Damon said rumors were circulating that death threats had been made against Robinson-Briggs.
Storch denied ever telling Damon that Robinson-Briggs' life had been threatened, but said he did have a conversation with Green about the administration's reluctance to publicly comment on its plans to fight crime.
Robinson-Briggs said she was unnerved when she saw the contents of Damon's July 7 blog.
"Even if it was gossip, we're not taking anything lightly," Robinson-Briggs said. "That report, which was pretty startling -- it was equally surprising that this adult would write something like that without first reporting it to the authorities."
Damon said the intent of the blog was not to place the mayor's life in danger but rather to "needle" the city administration for what he described as its failure to address a daytime shooting that took place on the steps of the Plainfield library in May, as well as other violent crimes that took place earlier in the year.
"The mayor, who ran on an anti-crime platform, then after taking office, didn't really address the murders that were going on and never spoke publicly about the daytime shooting on the library steps," Damon said. "Then there were rumors going around that supposedly, the administration was not interested in saying anything about it because supposedly there had been death threats made again the mayor. It was a rumor, and it was proven false."
McGee said that even if the blog hadn't been posted, city officials already were considering additional security measures for Robinson-Briggs because of her governing style.
"She wants to be the one to answer her phone, to see everybody, to go knock on peoples' doors to respond to letters they've sent, and she'll do it all by herself, " McGee said of Robinson-Briggs. "She's just that kind of person, but if she's going to be like that, we felt there should be more security."
The two officers assigned by Hellwig to on-call duties escorting Robinson-Briggs are Sgt. Kenneth Reid and Officer Richard Brown of the Plainfield Police Department.
The officers are two of approximately 150 police officers on the Plainfield police force.
McGee said Reid and Brown, who earn $82,112 and $72,505 a year respectively, were among the approximately 88 officers working patrol duties for the city before taking on their new assignments. Reid has been with the Plainfield Police Department since July 1984, and Brown has been with the department since January 1986.
Although both police officers maintain some of their previous responsibilities with the police department, McGee said the officers are on-call to escort the mayor for all public appearances and spend most of their work-weeks in that capacity.
"They still have some other duties with the police department, but most of the things they are doing are related to her (Robinson-Briggs) security," McGee said.
McGee declined to provide specific details of the security arrangements made for Robinson-Briggs or whether Reid and Brown still patrol, citing safety reasons.
McGee said that while he can't recall another instance in the city's history where a mayor received an assigned security detail, he said that as far as he knows, there has been no other documented instance in which threats, or rumors of threats, have been made against a former Plainfield mayor.
"Our options in terms of responding to that blog were limited, but regardless, how do you compromise the mayor's safety?" McGee said.
Since taking office, Robinson-Briggs said she can't recall any specific time in which she felt unsafe in her capacity as the city's mayor.
"I've never felt unsafe -- I know the police department is working very diligently to protect our residents," Robinson-Briggs said. "But the same way that my administration said we wanted to return safety and security to the streets of Plainfield, now they're asking me to give myself the same benefit."
Since acquiring an official security detail in July, Robinson-Briggs said neither police officer assigned to her has had to physically protect her during a public appearance.
But even if the service has yet to show its immediate purpose, some officials, including Green, are in favor of police escorts for the mayor, especially if Robinson-Briggs is going to take the position of being tough on crime.
"She (Robinson-Briggs) hasn't personally been threatened, but the mere fact that this administration, under her, has basically put 18 more police officers on the street, and has taken many individuals off the street that commit crimes -- when you put a criminal in jail or out of business, you never know what might be on their minds," Green said.
Compelled to pull officers from patrol duties and into escort assignments, some in the city's administration see the arrangement as a necessary -- but sad -- sign of the times.
"No one is trying to throw anybody in jail for that blog, and I think the reaction to it was reasonable, but now we've got two patrol officers that have to spend a great deal of time escorting the mayor," McGee said. "I guess that's the price we pay for living in a free society."
Christa Segalini can be reached at (908) 707-3142 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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- Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.