Published in the Courier News, Tuesday, March 04, 2008
Trenton police director opines on chief issue
By BRANDON LAUSCH
Trenton Police Director Joseph Santiago told City Council members Monday night that appointing a civilian to oversee the city's 151-member force -- while abolishing the chief's position -- would likely infuse a higher level of accountability and a fresh managerial focus throughout the Police Division.
During a 20-minute presentation, Santiago said an appointed police director, by design, would be "transparent and more responsive" than a sworn chief, a position chiefs argue is protected from politics by tenure guidelines and other laws.
"I don't think that the notion of having a civilian automatically transcends into political interference," Santiago said. "I think that's what some people will try to convince you of, but I've rarely seen cases of it."
Local officials invited Santiago to visit Plainfield as City Council members move to finalize a controversial plan -- which last month gained state Department of Personnel approval -- to eliminate the position of police chief as part of a wider reorganization of the city's Police Division.
Under the proposal, Chief Edward Santiago would be stripped of his position April 11 -- two days shy of his ninth anniversary as the city's top cop -- and would be forced to retire or accept a demotion to captain.
His supporters, including a contingent of fellow chiefs who lined one wall of the council's meeting room, were likely prepared to criticize the proposal during public comment, but citizens' participation was scheduled past Courier News deadlines.
Joseph Santiago -- described by Plainfield officials as a leading authority in police issues -- is also a polarizing figure in New Jersey law enforcement. A former Newark police director, Joseph Santiago served seven months as state police superintendent before resigning amid several controversies.
Most recently, Trenton residents and politicians have sued the city and its mayor, Douglas H. Palmer, over a requirement that employees live within city limits. The pending lawsuits demand the police director move to Trenton or lose his job.
In Plainfield, the layoff proposal is part of a reorganization effort by Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig, who found "serious management and operational issues directly related to the Police Division's organizational structure" after a review of the force.
The pending reorganization would expand the responsibilities of bureau commanders, revamp existing units and create a sixth police bureau dedicated to solving information technology issues and reporting crime statistics.
The administrative duties held by Edward Santiago would be handed over to the civilian police director while police-related functions of the chief would be absorbed by bureau commanders who hold the rank of captain.
"Thoughtful deployment of resources and strict accountability for the delivery of services has been a missing ingredient in the administration of police resources. I intend to end that practice," Hellwig wrote in a reorganization report. "The redeployment of all captains and reorganization signals a new way of doing business in the police division."
The city's Fire Division would maintain the rank of chief, Hellwig said, because the "efficiency with regard to the Fire Division is not in question to my mind."
Under pending resolutions, a police director with at least five years of experience in public administration or law enforcement and would be appointed by the mayor and City Council. The person would serve until the mayor's successor decides to accept or reject the choice. The director would report to city leaders, including the public safety director.
But why appoint two civilians to oversee the city's police officers, creating what some critics have called an unnecessary layer of expensive bureaucracy?
"It could be me," Hellwig said the proposed ordinance to appoint a police director, which includes language to allow the public safety director to assume both roles.
"Taxes are of main concern to the council and the administration, obviously, and that's why this (wording) was put in there," Hellwig said, adding that "it's still up for discussion" about whether he would accept the added job.
Online story here. Archived here.
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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.