Bergen County Chiefs Oppose County Police Merger
Bergen County Chiefs invited to discuss the effect on their municipalities if the County Police are absorbed into the Sheriff's Department.
Representatives from the Bergen County Police Chiefs Association say a proposed merger of the county police and the sheriff's department could lead to higher costs and reduced service.
With just 24 hours notice, five police chiefs sat down with members of the Freeholders' Law and Public Safety Committee Wednesday to answer questions and read into the record their position on the potential merger.
"Just today I had a copycat Aurora situation in my town that required me to call the County OEM, Bomb Squad and K-9 unit," said New Milford Chief of Police Frank Papapietro, who also serves as Mutual Aid Chairman of the Bergen County Rapid Deployment Force (RDF).
"I can't duplicate that type of service or level of training, nor can I afford to," he said, adding that given the 2 percent property tax cap on towns, chiefs are already trying to stretch their limited budgets to meet unlimited needs.
The committee is attempting to compare the findings of the Guidepost Consolidation Study report prepared at the request of Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli —which recommends the elimination of the County Police —with the report prepared by the Craemer committee appointed by County Executive Kathleen Donovan that advised against eliminating the County offices.
The concerns of the five chiefs gathered around the table rest primarily on maintaining the high level of service they receive from County police's specialized units: SWAT, OEM, K-9, bomb squad. They also expressed concern that the burden of providing these, and other services provided by the County Police, will fall to each of the departments.
Freeholder Robert Hermansen, the committee chair, told the chiefs it was not the intention of the committee to push any costs onto the backs of the municipalities.
Chief Brian Gurney of Ramsey wanted to know what the action plan was for the implementation of the merger of these two departments and how they will evolve into one cohesive department.
Referencing Clarkstown, Nassau and Suffolk counties, Gurney also stated that often, regionalization results in higher costs with salaries actually going up.
Cliffside Park Chief of Police Donald Keane, sitting in for Chief Vincent Caruso of Lodi, who is away on training, said that the merger will likely cause some of the senior ranked command staff in these specialty units to leave. He stressed that if that were to happen, the units would suffer from the loss of experience.
Mahwah Chief James Batelli said that it was impossible for the chiefs to respond the committee's questions about the proposed merger without the benefit of having before them the design of the newly merged organization and the action plan.
Batelli said he is in the unique position of having a state college and two county parks in his town. His concern, as that of the chiefs in Leonia and Ridgefield who have Overpeck County Park, is the recommendation of the Guidepost study that states that municipal police agencies assume responsibility for patrol calls within county parks and schools, among other facilities.
"If you take the County away from our county parks during the summer months when there are two county cops stationed at each park, I'd have to deplete 10 percent of my workforce to bridge that gap," Batelli said.
Hermansen assured the chiefs that those towns with county parks would still have the same presence from the merged department.
As mutual aid chairman of the Bergen County RDF, Papapietro coordinates mutual aid responses throughout the county and knows "first-hand the value of each agency and all the different assets they bring to the table."
"As a street level commander, I can tell you that it has worked well," Papapietro told the committee.
Representing Sheriff Michael Saudino at the round table was his attorney, John McCann. McCann offered that Saudino was willing to sit in a room with County Police Chief Brian Higgins and hash it out as long as they ultimately abide by the prosecutor's decision.