Monday, June 18, 2007

Hell to the Chief

As Police Chief Edward Santiago looked on Monday, Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig told the City Council Monday his new reorganization plan calls for an “executive officer” to be in charge, leaving the chief the choice of retiring or reverting to the status of captain.

Santiago, who has eight years to go before mandatory retirement, said outside the meeting, “What you see is a dangerous politicization of the police department.”

Santiago disputed the statistics in Hellwig’s Power Point presentation and called it “embarrassing,” saying he had no “heads-up” that his job status would be part of it.

Both Hellwig and Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs denied that it was an attack on Santiago, but the chief said it was set up since the beginning of the mayor’s administration in January 2006 “to get rid of the chief of police.”

The dispute over who should be in charge of law enforcement goes back a decade or so.

The city charter calls for a civilian public safety director, currently only in charge of police and fire operations, but one question explored in a 1990 charter study was elimination of the public safety director.

Since the new administration took charge, the argument has veered more toward replacing the police chief. Hellwig proposed having a captain in charge, although when Santiago was suspended by the mayor previously, a low-ranking lieutenant was put in charge over five captains and several higher-ranked lieutenants.

Council members were unsure of their role regarding the recommendation and it was unclear how it might be implemented.

Santiago said outside the meeting it would require a change in the city’s special charter, but later said it might mean a change in the municipal code.

Hellwig’s presentation covered changes and proposed innovations in the Police Division’s five bureaus, mainly geared toward getting more officers on the street. But in one example, Santiago said the state Department of Corrections mandates officers on duty in the city jail and that all civilian staff opens the city to liability.

Santiago has the backing of the New Jersey Association of Chiefs of Police, which on its web site spells out the differences between chiefs and civilian public safety directors.

The dispute is far from over. Interested citizens should try to inform themselves.

Meanwhile, Plaintalker will try to expatiate all the proposed and actual changes in another post.

--Bernice Paglia


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