Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Asm Jerry Green - Legislature - Bill to make police chiefs contractual - Ledger

Published in the Star Ledger, Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Lawmaker wants way to remove top cops

Plainfield's Santiago appears to be target

Star-Ledger Staff

A month after his political ally put Plainfield Police Chief Edward Santiago on administrative leave, Assemblyman Jerry Green introduced a bill that would make it easier to remove a sitting police commander.

The bill would make top cops employees with a three- to five-year contract instead of tenured workers. It creates a 12-member state commission to determine if a chief was "satisfactorily performing his duties" near the end of the contract. Those who don't meet the cut could be demoted to a lower rank but would not lose their job, Green said.

The state needs to weed out tenured employees who are performing "unsatisfactorily," starting with police chiefs, Green said. He introduced the six-page bill Monday.

"You can't just go after Santiago, you have to say this system in place is not working," said Green, whose district includes Plainfield. "There is no check and balance when it comes down to the police departments in New Jersey."

The bill comes on the heels of a court fight to reinstate Santiago, whom Mayor Sharon Robinson- Briggs put on paid administrative leave four weeks ago because she does not want her criticism of the department to land her a role in a lawsuit Santiago filed in 2005.

Santiago sued the city in August, claiming his reputation was tarnished after former safety director Michael Lattimore suspended him for a day.

In court Friday, a judge refused to immediately allow Santiago to return, instead putting off a decision until the end of the month.

Santiago's lawyer, Todd Shea of Westfield, declined to comment because he has not seen the bill. Shea added, "I can say Plainfield violated the law in place at the time they put him on leave."

The bill takes "all the politics" out of the process, because an outside commission decides the fate of chiefs, said Green, an adviser to Robinson-Briggs who helped her win the mayoral seat.

Not so, according to Mitchell Sklar, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police. The bill would oppose a law from the early 1980s that made the chief's position tenured, insulating them from capricious politicians.

"If the police chief was doing something the politicians didn't like, they couldn't simply be removed because they annoyed elected officials," Sklar said. "It happened often enough to enact a law to put a stop to that."

Sklar pointed out the current system of checks and balances. Municipal police chiefs answer to the county prosecutor, who answers to the attorney general.

The 12-member evaluation commission would fall under the department of law and public safety and include union leaders, police association leaders, two people appointed by the governor, and others.

As chair of the housing and local government committee, Green said, he hears many municipalities complain about incompetent police commanders.

"The majority of them feel at a disadvantage because once these chiefs are appointed, they can basically not be removed unless they almost commit murder," Green said.

Julia M. Scott covers Plainfield. She may be reached at jscott@star or (908) 302-1505.

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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.