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Bergen County Chief Defends Role of County Cops

Specialized agencies within the Bergen County Police Department provide a vital support system and cost savings to municipalities, Chief says.

Lucy Heller, president of the Bergen County League of Women Voters, told the crowd Tuesday night that the League sponsored "information session" on the services provided by the Bergen County Police appeared to be one-sided because it was.

"Like PBS, sometimes it's important to tell the untold story," she said. "If citizens aren't aware of the services provided, then they can't make informed choices."

And that is what Bergen County Chief of Police and Director of Public Safety, Brian Higgins, set out to do--inform the audience of the specialized services his department provides to the 70 municipalities in Bergen County.

With a panel that included New Milford Police Chief Frank Papapietro, Chairman of Mutual Aid for the Bergen County Chiefs Association and founding member of the Bergen County Rapid Deployment Force (RDF), and Lt. Mike Devine, head of the Bergen County SWAT team, Higgins stressed, "We are the first and best example of shared services."

Under the continuous cloud of Freeholder threat to merge the County Police with the Sheriff's Department, Higgins said that although he respects Sheriff Michael Saudino, he is a politician who needs to raise money to get votes in order to keep his seat.

"Are you comfortable with these decisions being put into the hands of a politician?" Higgins asked.

"I'll never ask you for a campaign contribution or a vote."

Higgins added that the expectations of the officers in each department differ.

"I respect the Sheriff's Office, but they can't be police officers," Higgins said. "They are corrections officers by title and work the jails or the courts."

Even the promotional exams administered by both departments differ, he contended.

"A promotional exam taken by a Bergen County police officer asks questions specific to policing. The Sheriff's corrections officer promotional exam asks questions specific to corrections," Higgins said.

Higgins set out to clarify fallacies in the findings of the 2011 Guidepost study on police consolidation funded with $600,000 in forfeiture funds by the Bergen County Prosecutors office. One recommendation was the merger of the County Police with the Sheriff's Department -- a move the study said would result in a savings of $17 million.

"That $17 million represents my entire budget," Higgins said. "And what's not taken into consideration or credited to my budget are the grants and revenue that come into my department."

Higgins told Patch that last year alone his department collected approximately $3 million in summonses. They also keep 100 percent of the monies collected in Central Municipal Court, fees from summonses issued to trucks that exceed weight limitations and other collected fines.

"The numbers tell the story," Higgins said. "And when put together, that $17 million figure is closer to $8 million, but no one supporting merger will talk about that."

Higgins said that his department answers approximately 60,000 calls for service annually.

"Where are those calls going to go?" he asked. "Will they fall to the already overburdened municipalities?"

Addressing the claim that 19 out of 21 counties got rid of their county police departments, Higgins said, "Eighteen of those counties were not even eligible to have a county police department because they didn't meet the population and density requirements needed to establish a county force."

Representing the Bergen County Police Chiefs Association, Papapietro said that the Association is in "full support" of keeping the Bergen County Police Department. "I could never afford to man and equip any of these units in my town, nor would I want my department to assume that liability," he said.

Papapietro added that according to New Jersey State Police standards he is currently under-staffed by seven police officers. "I start off every day seven officers short," Papapietro said. "It gives me peace of mind knowing that in any situation, no matter how highly charged, I can call the County police knowing that a skilled team will respond." 

Higgins said that every member of his force is crosstrained. "They are patrol officers in addition to having a secondary skill utilized in one of the specialized units." Approximately half of the force are trained as instructors, as well.

To dispel the myth that Bergen County police officers have no idea how to police communities, or understand the concept of 'community policing,' Higgins said that every municipal officer was trained in whole or part by members of his staff at the Bergen County Police Academy.

"We established the 'Community Policing' course at the Academy," Higgins said. "Also, I, along with many other officers in my department, began our careers as municipal officers before joining the County force."

In addition to monitoring county roads and parks, the Bergen County Police Department and Department of Public Safety encompass the SWAT Team, Bomb Squad, Office of Emergency Management (OEM), Medical Examiner Unit, Water Search and Recover Unit, K-9 Unit, protection of the Bergen County-run schools and special services programs, and Department of Consumer Protection/Weights and Measures.

"Every one of these specialized units are available to all municipalities with the costs of training, equipment purchasing and liability absorbed by this department," Higgins said.  

Higgins told Patch that many people are not aware of multi-faceted role that the County police play in their daily lives because they do not often publicize themselves.

"We come into municipalities to support those police departments that request our help--whether it's SWAT, K-9 or Bomb Squad," Higgins said. "But when our mission's complete we leave and any press release that comes out detailing the incident is issued by that local Chief." 

But Higgins wants the residents of Bergen County to know that the Bergen County Police Department is an agency with highly skilled and trained professionals serving residents for almost 100 years.

"We're older than the New Jersey State Police," Higgins said. "I like to think that they modeled their department on ours."

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