Meeting in public session Monday, the Princeton Council voted on an ordinance that would give statutory “appropriate authority” for civilian oversight of the Princeton Police Department to Princeton Administrator Robert Bruschi.
In spite of strong criticisms and appeals to rewrite the ordinance from residents, including a former Police Commissioner and a former Borough Council member, the ordinance passed. The vote was 4 to 3, with Mayor Liz Lempert providing the tie-breaker.
The evening had a deja-vu quality about it. When the draft ordinance (an amended version of one used in the former Borough of Princeton) was introduced on September 9, similar criticisms surfaced and the Council was also evenly divided, with the mayor siding with Police Commissioner Heather Howard and Councilmen Bernard Miller and Lance Liverman in voting for the change and Council members Jenny Crumiller, Jo Butler, and Patrick Simon voting against.
Those voting for the ordinance argue that a full-time professional administrator is better able to provide oversight of the day to day running of the police in conjunction with the chief of police than a part-time council. Those against argue that civilian oversight, or “appropriate authority” as it is termed in state statutes is the responsibility of the governing body, i.e. the mayor and members of the Council.
Before Monday’s vote was called, Council heard from members of the public. Former Borough Council member Roger Martindell criticized the amendment as “inarticulate” and “self-contradictory.” He urged the council to “Vote it down.” “To adopt it would be bad policy and bad politics. We elected you to lead and take responsibility for our police department. Rewrite this ordinance,” he said.
“Everyone is confused,” said Joe Small. “It would be foolhardy to pass this knowing it conflicts with itself.”
Councilwoman Butler questioned whether the ordinance as written followed the state statute in dividing power between administrator and Council. Town attorney Edwin Schmierer responded that it was clear that the Administrator had all of the power but could delegate some -activities to Council. Mr. Schmierer defended the ordinance, which he said had gone through a number of drafts. “I don’t think it is inconsistent and the administrator can delegate some responsibilities to and review major issues with the governing body.”
Ms. Butler was not convinced by Mr. Schmierer’s response and expressed concern that adoption of the ordinance would lead to problems in the future. “When there is an emergency or some sort of a legal challenge, everyone goes back to the rule book. This ordinance is not well-written. I would like to help rewrite it to have a clear line of authority. I have a feeling we are going to need it,” she said.
The issue of civilian oversight of the police has played out against a backdrop of public concern over a recent lawsuit brought by seven police officers against the department, the municipality, and former police chief David Dudeck.
Patrick Simon also expressed the view that the ordinance as written was flawed.
But Councilman Liverman disagreed: “The ordinance is clear and I don’t think we need to feel that the world is falling apart.”
Citing his long career and acquaintance with the way in which “appropriate authority” was handled before consolidation in the former Borough of Princeton and Township of Princeton, Councilman Miller commented that “both methods worked equally well or equally poorly, both have merits and faults. I believe that [the ordinance] is clear enough as written.”
In the former Borough of Princeton, the appropriate authority was the Public Safety Committee, comprised of the police commissioner and two other Council members. In the former Township, the appropriate authority was the entire Council.
The issue was further complicated by differing interpretations of the state statute, confusion over the exact draft being discussed, and what the state of New Jersey requires of “appropriate authority.”
Ms. Howard pointed out that the ordinance amendment was made in the light of extensive research. She cited the New Jersey League of Municipalities and a New Jersey Treasury Department report.
In casting her tie-breaking vote Ms. Lempert said: “This was an issue where there were two schools of thought. I respect all of my colleagues. They explained why they voted as they did. We are all trying to do what is best for Princeton.”
As the “appropriate authority,” Mr. Bruschi will “coordinate with the police chief with respect to the day to day operations of the department” as well as “receive, review, and forward to the mayor and Council monthly reports.” Since the Princeton Police Department currently has no chief of police, that role falls to Captain Nick Sutter, currently acting as chief until a new appointment is made.