IRVINGTON, NJ The head of the township’s police union unleashed scathing criticisms of township officials this week for allowing Police Chief Michael Chase to remain on the job despite misconduct allegations that remain unresolved more than two years after they surfaced.
Maurice Gattison, president of the Irvington Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said the department’s rank and file has grown increasingly agitated with the slow pace of hearings related to dozens of administrative charges against Chase, all while he continues to wield the power to refer his subordinates for potential discipline.
“That’s the consensus of everybody. He’s signing off on charges that have to do with truthfulness, violation of rules and regulations, and people are constantly complaining that he himself is facing numerous charges for the same conduct,” Gattison said.
“People don’t think that it’s fair for him to be doing this.”
Chase was initially suspended in December 2012, after the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office began an investigation into various allegations of misconduct against him, including that he used the department’s Internal Affairs Unit as a bully pulpit, punishing officers who had fallen into disfavor with him.
That probe ended without criminal charges, but he remained suspended as the township began three separate administrative proceedings against Chase. Those cases have yet to be resolved, but Mayor Tony Vauss elected to bring the chief back on board shortly after being elected in July.
He was also accused of other abuses, including ordering on-duty detectives to take his wife’s car to a local mechanic, quashing an internal probe into his nephew, Officer Rashaan Sampson, and failing to adequately investigate 113 complaints against officers filed by citizens between April and August of 2012.
During an interview yesterday, Chase dismissed Gattison’s comments as commonplace among labor officials, and said the pending proceedings had absolutely no effect on his ability to run the department.
He stressed that he had only the power to refer allegations against officers to Internal Affairs detectives for an investigation, and that no discipline could be handed down without a formal hearing overseen by Police Director Tracy Bowers and the township’s Legal Department.
“I’m not undermining anybody’s rights. I can only assert that unions do what unions do. They don’t like their members being held accountable. It doesn’t mean I have to go along with that,” he said.
Chase added that he believed all potential misconduct should be under more scrutiny than ever due to the national attention devoted to recent police tactics in Ferguson, Mo. and elsewhere, and defended his record since taking over as chief in 2002.
“Anybody can quickly vent and say ‘He’s not doing right.’ I’m not comparing myself, but I know there’s a lot of notable people in history who have been harangued, maligned wrongly over the years,” he said.
Vauss reiterated his position that he restored Chase to duty because he was continuing to collect his annual salary of $154,272 during his suspension.
“That doesn’t serve the residents and the taxpayers in town. As soon as something is found..we’ll look at it then,” he said.
The mayor also said he had faith that Bowers had adequate power to oversee all internal investigations to ensure that no abuses were being carried out.
On Monday, Chase attended a hearing on charges related to the alleged IA abuses and is expected to testify on his own behalf an upcoming proceeding, but there is no timeline for any decision — something Gattison, who was cleared on charges related to a number of ‘gangsta-rap’ style videos last year, took issue with.
“They allowed this case to drag on two years, and he’s got two other cases. When they charged me, they had me at a hearing before the ink was dry,” he said.
Gattison went even further with his criticisms, saying poor morale and what he alleges is widespread favoritism in the department have contributed to a spike in homicides since Chase returned to duty on July 23.
Essex County Prosecutor’s Office Chief of Detectives Anthony Ambrose said the township has totaled 18 homicides this year, 12 of which have come since July.
“You have people that’s in the elite unit based on dating relationships and friendships, because they hang and party with (Chase). That tears through the department constantly,” he said.
Under an ordinance passed last year, Bowers is barred from being involved in police strategy meetings, looking at crime reports or giving instructions to most officers, leaving the majority of those decisions to the chief.
Chase fired back, pointing out that homicide numbers also jumped from eight to 16 in 2013, when he was suspended the entire year.
“I believe we’re all party to the same obligation. Morale doesn’t kill people,” he said. “I always know this about unions…they always want more. They’re never satisfied. If you let them tell it, they’re the most downtrodden, underworked, underpaid and underappreciated people. Let me know when that mantra changes.”
For his part, Vauss said he was disappointed Gattison chose to voice any legitimate public safety concerns in the media rather than speaking to him directly.
“I’m just trying to get us to a place where we can be stable and we can serve the community,” he said, adding that he too was anxious for a resolution to the allegations against the chief.
“We have to move forward one way or the other.”