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Former prosecutor: Bergen PD should stay

A FORMER PROSECUTOR WRITES: Those who would disband the Bergen County Police base such opinion due to either a lack of knowledge and experience of its workings and necessity to other county and municipal law enforcement or out of a desire to aggregate power for political purposes in a Sheriff’s Office that has, at best, been overly political and on occasion even criminal in years past.

The County Police provide valuable services that do not come with a “political” price tag, and they recognize and abide by lawful authority and an established chain of command.

As County Prosecutor, I initiated and supervised an investigation that disclosed widespread corruption, political patronage, sale of jobs and sale of appointments and badges under Sheriff Joseph Ciccone. That investigation led to the conviction of Sheriff Ciccone for official misconduct and other charges.

When one reads about the conviction of Hackensack’s Chief of Police for official misconduct and the unfolding story of his Widespread abuse of authority, consider that his “style” could have permeated and ruled the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office, as it did the Hackensack Police Department, had he won election rather than former County Police Chief Joel Trella.

Prior to Ciccone, I watched a Sheriff and Acting Sheriff attempt to expand power by duplicating services, interfering with and interjecting themselves into other legitimate law enforcement activities and disregarding the lawful chain of command.

When former Undersecretary of State Nelson Gross was abducted and later found murdered in New York City, the Sheriff and Undersheriff refused access to investigators of the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office and agents of the FBI who wanted to interview an inmate we learned had offered information.

The Sheriff was nota part of the investigation by mutual decision of the BCPO and FBI for several reasons — one of which was the Sheriff and Undersheriff s history of leaking information to curry favor with the press. Knowledge is power and these politicians wanted law enforcement information to help expand their power.

When the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office raided the Ultima Spa in Lodi, we called upon the Bergen County Police SWAT Team to conduct the raid. The establishment was entered and secured in under a minute and a half with no injuries or incidents and confidentiality was maintained throughout the process.

It is not enough to have a SWAT Team in name only. It must be a team in function and performance. A SWAT Team gains cohesiveness from training together as members of the same department with continuity of command and control.

That entry in Lodi was valuable in preserving evidence that lead to disclosing misconduct by an FBI special agent and the closing of a notorious house of prostitution that adversely impacted on the quality of life for Lodi residents.

l should point out that the “bad guys” were sophisticated enough to have counter-surveillance and security in place that was successfully by-passed by a professional and cohesive County Police SWAT Team.

I doubt such performance and result would have been possible with the type SWAT Team envisioned by some politicians who oppose the County Police or the current Prosecutor, who appears ready to start his own team, something beyond the need and function of a prosecutor’s office.

There are countless instances where the County Police have provided irreplaceable support services to county and municipal law enforcement agencies though their K-9, SWAT, Bomb Squad, Highway Traffic Safety, Office of Emergency Management, Patrol, Police Academy Training and Administration, Medical Examiner’s Unit, Threat and Counter-Terrorism and other services.

The taxpayer will not save money by consolidation despite the claims of some — in part, because many of these services will be passed on to smaller, overburdened, municipal departments that have neither the manpower nor budgets to absorb them.

Furthermore, once merged into the Sheriff’s Office, there is little or no likelihood of reduction in force, especially if the high standards and proficiency of the County Police are maintained.

Add to that the “political” price tag that often accompanies services provided by the Sheriff — unlike the County Police which, from the Chief of Police right down through the ranks, accepts and abides by a lawful chain of command that starts with the Attorney General as chief law enforcement officer of the state and the County Prosecutor as chief law enforcement of the county.

To the contrary, most Sheriffs have maintained that they are answerable to no one, claiming their independence from the County Prosecutor is based upon their status as “constitutional” officers.

What I have witnessed is that all too often, a Sheriff does answer to the politicians and to their political donors, making the Sheriff the least acceptable of any law enforcement office to take over the County Police.

I look forward to engaging in the discussion as a proponent ofthe Bergen County Police in the coming weeks as further opportunities present.

William H. “Bill” Schmidt was Bergen County prosecutor from 1997 to 2002. Before that he was an assistant prosecutor, a county investigator and a municipal court judge in Paramus. He now manages various musical acts, from country and bluegrass to Southern rock,  shuttling back and forth between Paramus and Nashville.

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