Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Police Chief Issue Needs Thought

City Council members need a clear understanding of the differences between a police chief and a civilian public safety director before taking any action to change the current situation.

The city’s special charter mandates a director of public safety as one of three department heads. Currently, the department includes only the police and fire divisions. Assemblyman Jerry Green is floating a plan to do away with the title of police chief and have captains carry out the functions of the office.

Green says the idea is still in the planning stages, which should mean there is time to mull the ramifications of such a significant change.

The New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police has a position paper on the subject that is well worth a look. Click here. It details the legal role of a chief versus that of a civilian police director, who has no police powers. Even if a civilian director comes out of a police background, accepting the title means he or she can’t make traffic stops, conduct patrols, answer service calls or detain individuals. The director can’t wear a badge or carry a gun, according to the paper, nor can they drive police vehicles. The paper states that directors generally can’t have access to criminal investigation reports or get involved in internal affairs without a court order.

By statute, a chief is responsible for day-to-day operations of the police and is responsible to the county prosecutor and the state attorney general. The law allows for an “authority” in the municipality, such as a mayor, director or other entity, to set policy and receive monthly reports on police matters.

There’s a lot more, including the issue of compensation for sworn officers who are asked to perform law enforcement functions that a civilian director cannot legally do.

Police chiefs have tenure, while civilian directors do not and may be subject to political pressures, the paper notes.

In Plainfield, if captains somehow assumed the duties of a chief without the title, there would be the issue of compensation as well as the captains’ knowledge that none could ever rise to be chief. Municipalities cannot grant police powers to a civilian director, so one of the five captains would have to assume top-rank responsibilities within the Police Division, such as evaluations of his or her peers.

Another question is how would the “chief” captain be chosen? Candidates for police chief take a state test and then the mayor gets to pick one of the top three scorers.

Plaintalker hopes citizens will weigh in on this issue. The city has a lot of unfinished business right now. Creating a possibly confusing chain of command in the Police Division might not be a good step.

Some might ask, if the title of police chief needs to be removed, why not also eliminate the fire chief and let the battalion chiefs run the Fire Division under the same civilian director? What is the difference in these two major aspects of public safety? Could the police chief claim to be targeted? Could more litigation ensue?


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