PATERSON, NJ – Shocked and frustrated by the case of a Paterson police officer who spent nine years on paid suspension while facing sex charges, City Council members are asserting they should have a bigger role in monitoring such disciplinary matters.
Council members said they had no idea the city decided to drop the charges against the officer, Manuel Avila, until they read about the agreement in a story by Paterson Press. Council members said they should have had more input in the way the situation was handled.
The case has cost taxpayers about $2 million, including about $900,000 worth of salary paid to Avila during his suspension, $710,000 for the settlement of a civil lawsuit filed by a woman who said she was victimized by the officer, almost $300,000 in legal fees and an $85,000 severance payment for Avila’s accrued leave time.
During his paid suspension, Avila continued to get contractual pay increases and accumulated additional pension time that could result in a significant increase in his retirement checks.
“Where else does this happen except in fiction and in Paterson?” said Councilman Kenneth Morris.
“This is a clear abuse of the system and in the final analysis the taxpayers end up paying the price,” said Council President William McKoy. “The system allows the police to monitor themselves. It’s a flawed system and it needs to be corrected.”
Morris and McKoy are the only two council members who remain on the governing body since 2007, when the initial charges were filed accusing Avila of forcing a woman in police custody to perform oral sex on him. Over that time, the city has undergone changes in the mayor’s office, in the police chief’s job, and in the police director’s position. There have been three different municipal law directors during that span.
Avila was acquitted of the criminal charges against him in 2010, but he remained on paid suspension while the woman’s civil lawsuit was resolved in 2011 and for five additional years while the handling of the departmental charges dragged on. The city’s difficulties in finding the woman who made the accusations against Avila and medical issues involving Avila’s lawyer were primary among the factors in the delay.
During the past year, the city began taking testimony in its hearing of the disciplinary case, but officials decided to drop the charges and allow Avila to retire rather than bring the case to a conclusion.
“When we ask for information, we are told we can’t have it because of the Attorney General’s guidelines,” said Morris of disciplinary matters involving police officers.
Paterson Police Director Jerry Speziale said there’s a “fine line” limiting what information that the state’s Internal Affairs policies allow to be made public about police discipline matters.
Speziale said that his department does reveal when an officer is on paid leave while charges are pending. “But when you get into the merits of a case, that’s when it becomes a problem to talk about it,” said the director. I err on the side of caution. You have to, or else there’s going to be a million lawsuits.”
Speziale said he issued a memo in early 2015, about six months after he became director, that was intended to expedite the handling of disciplinary cases. That memo said a hearing would be held within 30 days of the filing of charges and that officers could seek only one adjournment of that hearing for no more than an additional 30 days, the director said.
Mayor Jose “Joey” Torres said the state guidelines as well as union contracts limit what information can be disclosed about police disciplinary matters, even regarding providing information to council members.
Paterson Law Director Domenick Stampone said state law designed to protect individuals’ privacy places strict limits on the council’s role involving employee disciplinary cases.
McKoy said he would seek a meeting with representatives of the Attorney General’s office to discuss what information can be provided to the council on pending cases like the Avila matter. A spokesman for the Attorney General declined to say whether such a meeting would be held.
McKoy also said officials at the state pension board should review the Avila case and review his pension status.
State pension board often reduce retired employees’ retirement benefits if they are convicted of crimes involving their public employment. The state board deems the years during which the crimes happened as “dishonorable service” and deducts that time from the calculations of the retirees’ pensions.
State pension spokesman did not respond to an inquiry on whether Avila’s case would come up for a “dishonorable service” hearing.
In 2007, city police officials had considered trying to force Avila to retire on a disability pension after a psychiatrist deemed him unfit to carry a weapons, according to court records. Avila had undergone the mental evaluation after he took a substantial quantity of sleeping pills.
But city police officers decided to allow Avila to remain on the force for another six months so he could reach 20 years of service, a crucial pension milestone, the court records show. He was assigned to the holding cell area, where he would not carry a gun.
Days after that decision, the alleged sexual incident was reported to have happened.
From The Paterson Press