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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Leave the police work to the police officers

It's a good bet that when asked, few people would say that they would prefer to have someone lacking experience in police work in charge of their local police force.

It would be an even better bet that most people would say that they believe the person leading a law enforcement organization ought to be familiar with what the members of that organization are tasked with – namely, law enforcement.

They would also probably agree that the importance of having experience in police work is compounded when the department in question is a large department working in an urban area with public safety problems, which also happens to be the state capital.

Yes, the city we’re talking about here is Trenton, New Jersey, and once again Trenton’s government is operating in a manner contrary to simple logic and commonsense.

City ordinances detailing the police director position, created following a controversial 1999 referendum, currently do not require that the director have any experience in police work, law enforcement management, or police administration.

They only require that the person leading Trenton’s 300 officer-plus police department have “at least five years experience in a responsible capacity in public administration.”

The direct cause for this anomaly is that at some point after the switch to a director-led department, administration officials came to the conclusion that they needed to change the director’s experience requirements to this more ambiguous form. They successfully lobbied City Council to pass the ordinance revision making it law, sometime in 2003 or 2004.

At first, the purpose of this is unclear. After some thought, bearing in mind the modus operandi of the City of Trenton, it appears that the reason for such a change could be that the administration foresaw a time when they would move to install someone with no police experience, at the helm of the city’s police department.

That could be related to how Trenton's city police force has been a contentious force, especially for the current mayor. Relationships between the top police brass and the Palmer administration have historically been of a strained nature.

That was clearly evident when Mayor Palmer, a five-term executive, told Esquire in 2007 that his greatest accomplishment, of all things, was “Changing the police department through a referendum. You take on the police - and I got rid of the fire chief, too - and they're bonded to kick your butt.”

Consequently, Mayor Douglas Palmer has sought to rein in and control the department, to the possible detriment of the city. He did this not only through the institution of a politically appointed police director, but also through the selection of candidates for the position whom he thought would help him control the department politically, although that did not always work out.

So it appears that now that current Police Director Joseph Santiago has been ousted for violating the city’s residency ordinance, those ordinance revisions regarding experience could come into play. They would potentially allow the administration to make a push to get a political supporter to lead the department while lacking any police experience.

Doing so would once again compromise the city’s public safety efforts, in a similar way to how Mr. Santiago’s leadership has resulted in less cops on the streets, politically-charged management decisions, Capt. Paul “Sleepy” Messina and his shenanigans, and skyrocketing overtime.

Luckily for city residents and anyone who enters Trenton, City Council can move forward to revise this ordinance and require actual police experience as a prerequisite for employment as the city’s “top cop”.

Doing so would also help prevent further detrimental and unneeded politicization of a department and a city that has now suffered for nearly six years under the current regime, and could be set to suffer for longer with the appointment of an inexperienced political appointee at the head of the department.


Anonymous said...

I attempted to go through your blog entries and find commentary about the initiation of your lawsuit to oust Santiago, but gave up, there are just too many posts. You are prolific.

Anyway, I would be interested to see a review on what particularly motivated you to seek his ouster, what effect it might of had on city politics (does this help/hurt city council, how weakened is Palmer, etc.), what effect do you think it will have on crime (sort term and long term), and would you use this tactic again to affect political change?

Also, I've heard the Mayor speak about the circumstances surrounding the switch to a civilian police director, but never heard the full story. Do you have any history on that?

Greg Forester said...

If you want to talk about it sometime, email me in a non-anonymous fashion at

Anonymous said...

Actually, would be interested in seeing what you would say about these topics publicly in your blog. However, these are admittedly loaded questions and would not be surprised if you give them a pass.

For me, I don't believe I have anything to gain from Trenton politics (it is all on the downside), so I'll prefer to remain anonymous, if possible.

Good riddance! said...

How about the fact that he alters statistics to look like hes actually doing something. I love when the palmer minions come and post on this blog...hey anonymous why don’t you tell me why the state police had a special class for santiago so that he could hold a position in that organization. I guess it was because he was just so "special". I guess thats why they also altered the requirements for his position in the police force. You really don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure this stuff out. Just not buy everything our "great" officials drewl out. Keep drinking the kool-aid or dishing it out......

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm not a Palmer minion, but I can troll with the best of them...

I would think that they might have made special accommodation for Santiago because he had skills at dealing with entrenched bureaucracies. And while I don't know the details of how everything went down with switching to a civilian police director, I wouldn't be surprised if things were completely out of control. Police need to be accountable to the city administration.

The counter argument that the city administration are the ones "out of control" can be argued. However, what are Trenton residents going to do about it?

I would argue that if you are reduced to residency lawsuits and other tactics to undermine the mayor's ability to govern, then you are ultimately doing more harm than good. It indicates that you don't believe that you can muster enough political power to change government through elections. And that is a sad state of affairs.

Nicholas Stewart said...

Dear Anon,

The plaintiffs of the residency lawsuit, myself included, engaged in this tool - very much like a vote would be considered - to challenge a government we felt was abusing its authority. We felt we could not wait for an election to make OUR voices heard. That's something we're allowed to do, isn't it?

As far as harm being done...I don't agree with you. The lawsuit has been costly to the city in short-term; but, how expensive has Mayor Palmer's Police Director been? How expensive has Mayor Palmer's administration of Trenton been?

Very expensive.

The cost imposed on the city by the residency suit is the city's fault due to the fact it has employed a City Attorney not versed in municipal law. Take a close look at the city's payroll and you'll find that the city employs a permanent 'Special' Counsel as well as the City Attorney (for reasons stated previously) and then went on to hire three other attorneys (one for the city corporation and another for the mayor - as well as the City Council). The City Attorney should be conducting all of the city's business - both for the admin and for the City Council. In cases where there is a conflict between either branch of government, a special counsel is then required. We don't need a permanent one.

In the long-term, the cost is actually minimal, simply because there is no way for the lawsuits costs to add up to as much money as the mayor and his Police Director have wasted.

The truth is, Trenton's residents are privy to very little information and have not all been schooled properly on civic activism and the ways to engage government (whether in challenge, or support). As we continue to spread that knowledge by demonstrating how to impose alternative policy and compromise accordingly, maybe our efforts will eventually prevail where we, few, in opposition may gain that political power you describe.

First, we need to educate.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the candor of your response.

I think that litigation as a source of political change primarily damages political institutions, not just the individuals involved. In essence you have at least put a serious dent in the idea of a civilian police director, in addition to whatever specific political damage that you intended to the Palmer administration.

So, the idea of costs goes beyond the monetary amount of lawyers and counsels. (Isn't it true that the lawyers are the ones who only win in these situations?) We are going to see an impact on the safety and order in this city.

So, it shouldn't be too much of a surprise that Palmer hasn't presented a succession plan. Either he is trying to make a political point, or perhaps, he hasn't had enough time or resources to fill the position. (He's been busy in Africa and the Democratic National Convention after all).

So there you go. A dangerous city and a damaged administration without a police director. Way to go guys! You are all too clever (for our own collective good.)