The head of the county police chiefs’ association asked the City Council Monday to consider tabling ordinances that would do away with the city police chief’s position and put a civilian director in his place.
“This is a very, very major change you are about to make,” Hillside Police Chief Robert Quinlan
The two ordinances are up for final passage Wednesday. If approved, they would leave Police Chief Edward Santiago
with the choice of moving down to captain’s rank or leaving the Police Division.
Quinlan, president of the Union County Police Chiefs’ Association, and Mitchell Sklar
, president of the New Jersey Association of Chiefs of Police, both spoke Monday to refute assertions made in favor of the change by Trenton Police Director Joseph Santiago
. (By coincidence, Joseph Santiago was ordered Monday to vacate the post for which he has refused to take residency in Trenton as required.)
Quinlan called the Trenton director’s arguments “seriously flawed and biased” and, as many residents have argued, he called the looming action “personal – directed at the police chief and the police chief only.”
The county organization has a “very strong interest” in Plainfield’s law enforcement leadership, Quinlan said, because its municipalities depend on each other for mutual aid and chiefs network to share ideas and expertise. Having at civilian director has led to failure and conflict in other places, he said, adding, “We don’t want to see that happen in Plainfield.”
Sklar said the state has 20 civilian directors and 440 police chiefs, as well as some situations with both.
“I’m going to confine my remarks to the law,” Sklar said.
Referring to the Trenton director’s argument that municipalities have a limited ability to remove a chief due to a tenure law, Sklar said, “There is no such act.”
Sklar said tenure rules apply to all police officers and there is a process that protects all from arbitrary or unreasonable removal. The law was created to address actions of “a certain elected official,” adding the case “predates anyone here.”
Police officers must receive a notice and hearing on any allegations of not doing their job and the process must be conducted “with fundamental fairness,” he said.
Sklar cited a case in which a mayor was dissatisfied with a chief, alleging lack of cooperation and leadership. The mayor’s right to make allegations was not in question, he said, but whether the lawful process was followed. The chief could not be removed or demoted without just cause, Sklar said.
Chief Santiago first found out about the plan for his removal when Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig
was giving a Power Point presentation last summer on a proposed reorganization and “Eliminate the rank of Chief of Police” came up on the screen.
“Current chief has option to revert to rank of Captain,” the slide read.
Despite rallies in favor of Chief Santiago and protests from residents and business owners, the ordinances to effect the change passed on first reading March 5. The administration also sought state approval to lay off Chief Santiago effective in April, when the ordinances take effect if passed Wednesday.
Santiago has asked for a closed-door talk with the council, but it has not been granted. Instead, the administration brought in the Trenton director to bolster its case for the change. Quinlan asked earlier this month for time to address the council on the chiefs’ perspective.
On Monday, Sklar concluded his presentation by naming numerous municipalities that tried having civilian directors.
“Each experimented for a period of time,” he said. “Each has returned to leadership by a sworn chief of police.”
But after the presentation, Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson
defended the city’s position.
“This is about a business decision to run the city of Plainfield,” he said. “It’s not about demoting anybody. It’s about reorganizing the Police Division and using a management style.”--Bernice Paglia