Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 50
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
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Council Reaches Consensus on Police Oversight

Dilshanie Perera

After more than a week-long debate concerning how Borough Council could best interact with the Police Department regarding legislative, policy, and disciplinary matters, Council voted to retain its Public Safety Committee (PSC) as the “appropriate authority” to whom the Chief of Police would report, and to delegate responsibility to the administrator to handle police disciplinary matters.

Members of the public may respond to the decision before its final vote on Tuesday, December 22, at 7:30 p.m. in Borough Hall.

Council member David Goldfarb suggested that the meeting begin “with a philosophical discussion regarding what the proper role of Mayor and Council is regarding the Police Department. Then we will be able to figure out the appropriate authority.”

Since the State of New Jersey requires civilian oversight of the police department, according to Mr. Goldfarb, the potential authorities up for consideration were the Borough Administrator, and the Public Safety Committee comprised of the mayor, administrator, and two Council members.

Pointing out that the previous ordinance, which named the PSC as appropriate authority has not worked well in the past and has “been reactive in almost every single case,” Mr. Goldfarb suggested that the administrator should be appointed as the authority, and that the PSC should be retained as an advisory body that meets regularly with the administrator to relay any public safety concerns of Borough citizens.

Borough Council member Roger Martindell made a case for more legislative control over the police department, reasoning that it “has the largest budget in the Borough, which requires the expenditure of more tax money than any other department.” He added that the “police are the face of the Borough government,” that the “nature of police work is highly sensitive, and the governing body should be directly involved.”

Advocating for the proposed ordinance change, Mr. Martindell explained that the PSC would retain its legislative function of “overseeing police operations by gathering facts, proposing rules, and making recommendations regarding police budgets,” while assigning the administrator “the duty to hear appeals of the police chief’s disciplinary orders.”

The division of responsibility would allow the PSC to explore the facts about specific cases, and avoid delays in addressing issues of police management. Mr. Martindell said these were the reasons that he supported the ordinance.

Discussion about restructuring the relationship between Borough Council and the Police Department was spurred by a case beginning in February 2008, which involved the suspension with pay of three police officers after an internal affairs investigation. Using taxpayer monies to fund suspended officers was a source of frustration for some members of the governing body.

Council member Kevin Wilkes supported the ordinance, saying that the PSC should meet monthly with the Police Chief, adding “I feel comfortable trusting the Chief with the day-to-day operations of the department.”

Noting that passing the ordinance alone was not enough, Council President Andrew Koontz said, “the Public Safety Committee needs to meet to formulate policy.”

Council member Barbara Trelstad reminded Council of a previous police disciplinary matter, emphasizing that her main concern was that “we were not controlling the purse strings … that’s the kind of control we need.”

“Although there’s no legal impediment,” Borough Attorney Karen Cayci said of splitting the legislative and disciplinary responsibilities between the PSC and the administrator, “You are going down a path other municipalities have not gone down.”

“The established way is not always good. In this particular circumstance; the established way has cost us a lot of money. The system is dysfunctional, and we have an opportunity to address some of that dysfunction,” Mr Martindell said.

Members of the public called for open communications between citizens and the PSC.

“Council members are persons who live among us, who have a sense of what matters to the community,” said Ann Yasuhara of Not In Our Town, urging the governing body to “open up a direct means of communication with members of the community.”

Maria Juega of the Latin American Legal Defense Fund expressed similar sentiments, noting that the PSC would allow Council to “keep the pulse of the public” present in its decision making.

Resident Dudley Sipprelle suggested installing members of the public on the PSC, or creating a citizens’ advisory committee for police matters.

Despite earlier skepticism, Mr. Goldfarb said he would vote for the ordinance, since it was “certainly better than the status quo.”

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