Wednesday, March 05, 2008

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

Published in the Courier News, Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Bill would monitor Jersey's top cops

Staff Writer

TRENTON -- Assemblyman Jerry Green introduced legislation Monday that would make make it easier for municipalities to remove police chiefs from their jobs.

In essence, the legislation would make New Jersey police chiefs contractual employees of the municipalities they work for, making it "easier for municipalities to remove police chiefs who are incompetent or who fail to meet performance goals."

"(Police chiefs) really should welcome it," said Green, D-Plainfield. "The challenge is now out there. The ones who are performing well and doing their jobs should have no problem with accountability."

According to Green's legislation, municipalities would hire chiefs of police for a three-to-five-year contract. Once the contract expires, chiefs would immediately be rehired unless the municipality decides on a different term or "determines the chief has failed to adequately address deficiencies highlighted in a performance evaluation."

Bill A-2864 would also establish a Chiefs of Police Performance Evaluation Commission in the state Division of Criminal Justice. The commission's primary function would be to conduct performance evaluations of chiefs.

The 12-member commission would include two people appointed to three-year terms by the governor, with Senate approval; the president or authorized representative of the state Association of Chiefs of Police, the state Police Benevolent Association, the New Jersey State Lodge, the Fraternal Order of Police, the state League of Municipalities and the New Jersey Conference of Mayors; the attorney general; the superintendent of State Police; the state commissioner of Personnel; and the state commissioner of Labor.

The commission would conduct evaluations at least one year prior to the expiration of a contract. Municipalities could also request an evaluation within the first year of the legislation, should it be enacted. After a subsequent meeting between the chief and municipality, the municipality could refuse to renew the contract if the chief fails to address deficiencies described in the evaluation.

Mitchell C. Sklar, executive director of the state Association of Chiefs of Police, said he had not read the legislation but received Green's news release about it.

Sklar said he wonders how a consensus would be reached on what makes a productive or effective police chief, considering the state has 566 municipalities with different circumstances, budgets and populations.

"That panel is very problematic," Sklar said of the proposed commission. "Though some of the proposed members are very valuable to the state, I'm not sure what they can contribute to an evaluation about police chiefs -- all of whom serve in municipalities that are very different."

Sklar added the bill "opens the door wide open" for political leverage.

"It appears you could drive a truck through the hole something like this would create for politics to enter the mix," Sklar said. "Chiefs should have the opportunity to disagree without fear of their opinions impacting whether they remain.

"There are statutes in place to keep these matters separate," he said. "This would take a machete to that system. This is a disincentive to become chief. Why would you want to?"

Green said the bill is simply about accountability, not politics. He said he has spoken to numerous municipalities that have "lost hope" or can't do anything about an ineffective police chief. Green spent six months in Plainfield, he said, interviewing officials to get "a good handle on local government."

In Plainfield, police Chief Edward Santiago is under paid administrative leave until a hearing to decide if he can return to work. Santiago has a lawsuit pending against the city to clear his record of a suspension in 2003.

"Here is a situation where no one is happy with his management," Green said. "Everyone thinks that the police department is not run correctly but they can't remove him because he has tenure. I don't think it's politically motivated. I think people just think he isn't doing a good job."

Santiago's attorney could not be reached for comment.

The issue seemed new to some local police chiefs. The first time Bridgewater police Chief Stephen Obal heard about it was when he was reached by the Courier News for comment. South Bound Brook police Chief Robert Verry said he heard something about it on a radio report but was unfamiliar with the details.

"I already have a 10-year contract," said Verry, who has been chief for six years. "It would seem to me that there would be a lot of questions with the legislation. I don't know how chiefs would continue running their departments if their subordinates ultimately have more tenure than the chief."

Sklar said many police chiefs have contracts. In fact, he said the chief's association provides municipalities with models for the contracts.

Green said the bill is not intended to affect tenure rights. If a chief is removed, he can still take a lesser role within the department, he said. But Sklar said that could have [an] effect [on] pay and pension plans.

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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.