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Friday, September 12, 2008

Reflections on Santiago's final days

In the waning days of the leadership of outgoing Police Director Joseph Santiago, the City of Trenton has been treated to a litany of incidents that show exactly why this man cannot be allowed to direct city law enforcement efforts any longer.

In 12 days or so Mr. Santiago will have to leave his office, after two different courts declared that his violation of the city residency ordinance meant his ouster, despite the pathetic attempts of Mayor Douglas H. Palmer and other administration officials to save Mr. Santiago's employment.

Since those rulings Trenton has been treated to business as usual under Mr. Santiago, regarding crime, management gaffes, and an overall lack of accountability that has many Trenton residents fuming.

There is the usual crime epidemic that has been the hallmark of Mr. Santiago's tenure here in Trenton. Despite Mr. Santiago's constant mantra of "crime is down, crime is down", the mounting reports of assaults, beatings, and robberies in many city neighborhoods put the lie to that slogan.

The manipulation of crime reporting with an eye to showing that Trenton is better off than in any period since the late 1960s doesn't hold water. Trentonians know what is happening on their streets, and it isn't pretty.

Besides the simple ineffective law enforcement, there are the more pronounced lapses of leadership. Of course, leadership is a hard thing to provide to a 300-man police department when the supposed leader doesn't show up for work half the time.

Regardless of Mr. Santiago's lax personal attendance, his leadership style and management decisions have resulted in the elevation of unqualified cronies to the upper echelons of the department. There they wreak havoc on their fellow officers and damage the effectiveness and public image of the city's first defense against criminals and gangsters.

Capt. Paul "Sleepy" Messina continues to provide local newspaperman with great material - repeatedly falling asleep while on duty, sexually harassing female officers, and becoming the target of Internal Affairs probes for verbally assaulting traffic officers in the streets for no apparent reason, in full view of the public.

There's Mr. Santiago's former Newark associate and current Communications Director Irving Bradley, who was brought in with the endorsement of Mr. Santiago.

In the year since he arrived, Mr. Bradley has severely disrupted operations within the city's Communications Division, become the target of a potentially costly lawsuit filed by angry subordinates, and been caught taking city vehicles 50 miles north to his old home in Rahway.

Additionally, state Department of Personnel officials said Mr. Bradley is unqualified for his position, and photographs widely distributed appear to prove that Mr. Bradley is breaking the city's residency law, just like his Newark pal Mr. Santiago.

There has been the skyrocketing of overtime costs, the abuse of city vehicles for personal use and transportation to places far away from Trenton, and the demotion of otherwise effective officers to positions and shifts undeserving of their superior talent.

Now, rumors running rampant in Trenton political circles have Mayor Palmer swooping in at the last moment on Mr. Santiago's last day in power on Sept. 22, and appointing the ousted associate to some sort of "acting" position to continue to lead the department.

Luckily for Trenton, Mr. Santiago must first establish bona fide residency in the city, meaning his wife and children must pack up, leave their current Morris County home, and become part of the city's community.

But this is something that Mr. Santiago swore he would never do, when sued by a group of city residents - including me - and the city's own City Council. All parties demanded his immediate relocation to Trenton, with his family, as called for in the city's longtime residency law.

The director refused, sparking a lengthy and costly court battle that drained the city of over $100,000.

Now, even with a move into Trenton and an attempt at reappointment, Mr. Santiago would still have to pass muster and receive a confirming majority of City Council votes from a body made up of people who have become enemies of Mr. Santiago's during the residency battle.

Add all of this to what Trenton has experienced during the ousted director's tenure, especially of late, and it looks like the deck is truly stacked against Mr. Santiago and Mayor Palmer on this one.

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