Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Chief vs. Director Debate Continues

Embattled Plainfield Police Chief Edward Santiago and half of his Union County peers sat stolidly against the west wall of City Hall Library Monday as Trenton Police Director Joseph Santiago touted the advantages of a civilian director over a tenured chief.

“What you’re looking for is executive power,” Joseph Santiago told the City Council.

Other advantages of having a police director as head of local law enforcement person are being able to draw candidates from a wider pool than just the top three who passed the chief’s test and not being bound by state laws that protect police chiefs, he said.

“At some point in time, stability may become stagnation,” the Trenton police director said.

The council was considering two ordinances, one to abolish the title of police chief after 139 years and another to create the police director post. The council has already agreed to submit a layoff plan to the state for just one individual – the chief – that will become effective April 15. If passed on first reading Wednesday and on second reading March 19, the two ordinances will take effect at about the same time as the layoff kicks in. Under a plan announced previously by Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig, the chief could choose retirement or reverting to the rank of captain.

While Police Director Joseph Santiago was careful not to target Chief Edward Santiago, he said sometimes the good intentions of state legislature that protect chiefs’ rights have the unintended cumulative consequences of insulating chiefs from accountability. But police directors’ powers are “derivative,” he said, established by the governing body.

Civilian directors have no police powers, can’t make arrests and are not allowed to carry guns, but Joseph Santiago said civilian authority has been accepted in the United States since its inception, citing the president’s role as commander in chief.

Later in public comment, Hillside Police Chief Robert Quinlan, also president of the Union County Police Chiefs’ Association, asked the City Council to allow the group to present their side of the argument. Quinlan said his association gave a presentation at the same League of Municipalities convention last year where Joseph Santiago spoke in favor of police directors.

“We feel there’s a lot of things that Mr. Santiago said that are very debatable,” Quinlan said.

The council did not give an immediate response.

Among the provisions of the new proposed ordinances, the Public Affairs & Safety director could also serve as police director. As department head under the City Charter, the director currently has authority over the Police and Fire Divisions. The new plan replaces one proposed last year in which police captains might serve in rotation as “executive officer.”

That title appeared in Hellwig’s slide show on police reorganization last summer that blindsided Chief Edward Santiago as the phrase “Eliminate the rank of Chief of Police” popped up on the screen.

Some, including former Union County Freeholder Adrian Mapp speaking Monday, called the proposed changes a vendetta against Chief Edward Santiago.

Another controversial issue was a portion of the ordinance creating the police director post that allowed for expansions of police titles, subject to budget considerations. In contrast to the current six captains, the proposed ordinance allows up to eight. Lieutenants, currently seven, could increase to 24. The present 24 sergeants might one day increase to 50 and the number of police officers, now about 153, might swell to 250.

Officials said the ranges were only possibilities, but the city would have to come up with something like a 23 percent budget increase to cover the possible increases.

The council will vote Wednesday on first reading of the ordinances at the regular meeting 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave,

--Bernice Paglia


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