TRENTON, NJ Police and fire union officials today trashed a proposal that would allow towns to require their new recruits to live within their borders, with one Newark union leader saying relations between the community and cops has turned toxic.
“You talk about the community. Right now the community hates us. Everything you see on social media. Everything you see in the media. The community hates the police,” James Stewart, a Newark detective and president of its chapter of the Fraternal Order Police, told the state Assembly Judiciary Committee today. “And you want to put us right in the middle of that with our families? I think it’s outrageous.”
At issue is legislation the committee was considering, pushed by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, that would allow municipalities to require new police and firefighters to live in town for their first five years on the job. Baraka sees the bill as part of a community building initiative, according to the bill’s sponsor, and Newark officials said today it would improve relations between residents and the police force.
The committee approved the bill (A4265) by a vote of 3-2.
New police and fire recruits in Newark and other New Jersey municipalities are required under the civil service system to live in town during their first year, which is a probationary period.
A New Jersey law in effect since 2011 requires all new public workers to live within the state.
Stewart said police officers have been taking too much criticism from politicians and the media.
“We’ve been blamed for everything: The high taxes in the state, the pension problems. Everything’s been laid at our feet,” Stewart said. “Fast forward a couple more years, the incident in Ferguson and Staten Island have put a target on our backs like never before. Suddenly we have become the bad guys. Everybody is against us. ”
The bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), said he didn’t think the statement was fair.
“Be on my side of the table,” Stewart responded. “Believe me, the morale of the department, the members of the department, they don’t (think) that we have friends in the community. We look like we are the bad guys now. And that’s a shame.”
McKeon attempted to assuage Stewart.
“I can understand the umbrage you take and the feeling of really been pressed upon.,” he said.
McKeon said some politicians had unfairly laid the blame for pension shortfalls partly on public safety workers “but I think there’s a good number of elected officials, both local, county and state, who have a different set of views and values and on matters of great importance will be there to support the uniformed services.”
Reached by phone after the hearing, Stewart — a South River resident who is also vice president of the state FOP — said he didn’t “literally mean every person hates us” but that “I feel that the vast majority of people are against us” because of isolated incidents of alleged police misconduct all over the country that were heavily publicized.
While Stewart’s testimony was the most impassioned, he was not alone in his opposition to the bill.
Pat Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, wondered if the state’s wealthiest towns would enact the residency requirement.
“I’ll let the officers in Alpine and Far Hills know to start looking for sheds, because if they opt in, quite frankly, you’re not going to find a house for less than $800,000 or $900,000 in some of these communities,” he said.
But there was one law enforcement voice in support of the legislation: Newark Police Chief Anthony Campos, who was appointed to the job by Baraka.
“They always say a police officer’s job is to deal with the extraordinary. Well you have to know what’s ordinary to know what’s extraordinary,” Campos said. “Let’s look at something simple. Let’s look at reinvesting into the community. At the end of the day, if you live there, you send your kids to school there, you’re going to shop there, you’re going to care more.”
Asked what percentage of Newark’s police officers lived in the city, Campos, a Newark resident, guessed that 15 percent would be “stretching it.”
Newark Business Administrator Jack Kelly pointed out that the city has a residency requirement for other new employees, including himself.
Dominick Marino, president of the Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey, questioned how the residency requirement would apply to North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue, which incorporates five Hudson County towns.
McKeon said he would amend the bill to address that issue.
This was the first legislative step for the measure, which would still need to pass the full Assembly and state Senate before reaching Gov. Chris Christie’s desk.