Bergen County Police Chiefs Take Stand Against County Police, Sheriff’s Merger Plan

BERGEN COUNTY, NJ &#8211 The Bergen County Police Chiefs Association joined the state’s police union Wednesday in urging county officials not to merge the county’s Police Department with its Sheriff’s Office, a divisive issue being weighed by the freeholders.

The association sent a letter to Freeholder Robert Hermansen just before a public meeting of the freeholders’ Law and Public Safety Committee Wednesday, which Hermansen chairs, stating that a merger of the two departments is not in the best interest of law enforcement or public safety.

At Wednesday’s meeting, the police chiefs of Mahwah, Cliffside Park, Ramsey, Lyndhurst and New Milford discussed why they generally oppose merging the county police with the Sheriff’s Office. They said it was not clear how a combined force would work or whether the quality of the specialized services that the county police provide, such as its K-9 and SWAT teams, could be maintained after a merger.

“What we have now works, and it works very well,” said Chief Frank Papapietro of the New Milford police.

The chiefs said the K-9 and SWAT services, as well as patrols of county parks and roads, would be difficult or impossible for their departments to replicate.

Merging the county police with the Sheriff’s Office “is a very simplistic way of looking at a monstrously complex and complicated issue,” said Chief Donald Keane of the Cliffside Park police.

Hermansen said, in his view, the county has three courses of action: leave the county Police Department as it is; merge it completely with the Sheriff’s Office, which would then assume all of the its functions; or relieve the county Police Department of its patrol responsibilities, leaving it responsible only for the safety of county parks and facilities.

These options differ significantly from the recommendations of a New York City consulting firm, Guidepost Solutions, which Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli commissioned to study redundancies in county law enforcement. Its $623,000 report, issued last year, gave three options, all of which were aimed at reducing the size of the county Police Department or eliminating it.

The options are: cutting 23 officers from the 89-member department; cutting 35 officers and merging the remaining officers with the Sheriff’s Office; or merging the entire department with the Sheriff’s Office. The report concluded that eliminating the county police could save taxpayers $17.7 million annually.

The authors of the Guidepost report, including Joseph Dunne, a former first deputy commissioner of the New York City Police Department, have made it clear in recent public meetings that county officials can follow one of their options, none of them, or pursue their own.

Hermansen has made it equally clear that he disagrees with much of the Guidepost report, and believes the county should explore its own options after deeper consultation by local police chiefs.

“We shouldn’t rush into only one option and say that this is all we’re going to do,” he said. “I don’t believe there is $17 million in savings to be had by going in and transferring that department to the Sheriff’s patch.”

Freeholder Chairman John Mitchell, however, said that doing nothing is not an option, despite statements from the chiefs that the system is not broken.

“It is broken, because the burden that’s being placed on the taxpayers of Bergen County,” Mitchell said. “We’ve got to start coming out of our little regions and we’ve got to start thinking outside the box. … The people we’re all obligated to serve are being killed by property taxes right now. We’ve got to come up with a better solution.”

From The Record