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Molinelli officially puts sheriff in charge of regional SWAT, splits K-9

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot File Photo
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

CVP EXCLUSIVE: As first reported here two months ago, a 2013 Law Enforcement Services Plan issued this morning by Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli officially gives county police four months to join a regional SWAT team that will be headed by the county sheriff, while giving both county agencies a month to implement a plan dividing specific K-9 duties.

The K9 split, he said, “will once and for all remove any redundancies in Bergen County between the Sheriff’s Department and the Bergen County Police.”

In January, CLIFFVIEW PILOT exclusively reported that the BCPD SWAT unit, until July, would be the first responder to a hostage or other SWAT-related emergency in those towns that don’t have their own squads, under changes made by Molinelli.

After that, primary responsibility in those towns that don’t already have SWAT teams falls to the new, multi-jurisdictional unit, under a directive that the prosecutor issued today to the state Attorney General’s Office.

Bergen County Sheriff’s Office

The unit already has nine members of the Hackensack Police Department training with Sheriff’s Officers and has drawn interest from other municipal police departments, Molinelli told CLIFFVIEW PILOT in a January interview.

Any agency in the county that chooses to do so can participate, the prosecutor said, adding that “the command structure and protocols” will be established by the Bergen County Police Chiefs Association.

Molinelli also split K9 duties: The BCPD will handle all accelerant and bomb calls, while the BCSO will handle all narcotics and cadaver calls.

Today, the prosecutor officially released the plan, a copy of which can be obtained here:

Bergen County 2013 Law Enforcement Services Review Plan

The changes in how the county will be policed are contained in a special section of the report entitled “2012 Committee Report and Recommendations for the Regionalization of Specialized Services.”

“I would ask that all chiefs give careful review of the plan, as it provides opportunities for qualified law enforcement officers countywide to become part of a regional SWAT team, and divides responsibilities for K9 specialized services after April 16, 2013 — which, in my judgment, will once and for all remove any redundancies in Bergen County between the Sheriff’s Department and the Bergen County Police,” Molinelli said this  morning.

” I am  confident that this will permit both the Sheriff’s Department and the County Police an opportunity to make a careful review of their resources on a going forward basis so as to minimize any impact upon the taxpayers while continuing to provide the exemplary police services that each agency has for so many years,” he said.

Molinelli ( below, left ) said he tried but couldn’t strike an agreement between County Police Chief Brian Higgins ( below, right ) and Sheriff Michael Saudino ( middle ) over K9 responsibilities. Each has its own unit.

So he came up with the plan “to remove redundancies. Each will no longer have to hold onto dogs that aren’t essential to their particular function,” he told CLIFFVIEW PILOT .

Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli, Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino, Bergen County Police Chief Brian Higgins (ALL: CLIFFVIEW PILOT PHOTOS)

Molinelli – who, under the state Criminal Justice Act of 1970, has the authority to issue such directives — said he reached his conclusions with the help of a study group that he commissioned last year to recommended how best to police the county.

He specifically asked the team to address K9, SWAT and bomb squad services.

The committee, chaired by retired Tenafly Police Chief Michael Bruno, submitted “an exemplary report” to him in January at a Law Services Review Board meeting at the prosecutor’s office in Paramus, Molinelli said.

“I would like to publicly thank Chief Bruno as well as the members of the committee in the preparation of this report and upon which I have approved the law services review plan which, in part, accepts in part the direct committee recommendations,” Molinelli said this morning.

Molinelli told CLIFFVIEW PILOT that Bruno’s review team “found that it wouldn’t be practical to suddenly create a countywide SWAT team. To unravel the current setup, with seven towns that already have created their own units, would be very expensive,” he said.

“However, it said the creation of a new regional SWAT team handled by the Sheriff’s Office could be done,” Molinelli noted.

“Everyone will be able to train together,” he said. “They would also naturally be the first responders in any jurisdiction that has people with them. They also can back up any of the seven towns that have their own SWAT unit.”

Molinelli pledged to make changes after the outgoing freeholder board last year nixed a plan to merge the BCPD and Sheriff’s Office. The prosecutor said his aim was to “reverse” the “1894 mentality” of creating separate and individual specialized units — such as SWAT and K-9 teams, the way local police departments were created in the 19th Century — and, instead, collect, consolidate and coordinate operations.

The freeholders rejection last year of an ordinance dissolving the 89-member BCPD gave a victory to Donovan and ended talk of a “super department” run by the county sheriff — at least at the time.

Sheriff Saudino, in turn, presented a plan under which his office would take control of the bomb squad, merge both departments’ K-9 units and move more than three dozen officers into “Homeland Security” duty — serving papers and conducting random park patrols.

Saudino proposed putting both the county communications center and the Office of Emergency Management under civilian control, with a minimal number of officers assigned to both.

The sheriff also saw no need for Civil Service waivers, suggesting instead moving BCPD officers into his office’s pay scale — in other words: $30,000 a year pay cuts, on average, for those who ended up working for the Sheriff’s Office.

Factoring in those moves, along with attrition, Saudino put the potential cost savings at $19.5 million over two years.

In Donovan’s view, putting “critical police functions” in the hands of an elected official “jeopardizes public safety.”

“The Sheriff’s Department, although an integral part of county government, is not a police organization. Their core functions are to oversee the Jail, Courthouse and serve process,” she said last fall. “On the other hand, the Bergen County Police provide valuable services to every citizen and to every town in Bergen Country.

“The Bergen County Police provide very specialized functions, SWAT, Bomb Squad, K-9, Scuba, patrolling our vast county park system, providing safety and security at our county educational facilities, in addition to their expanding role in assisting local police departments with patrol work.

“Calls to the Bergen County Police from local police departments have increased by 23% this year,” Donovan added in October. “The help from the Bergen County Police prevents the need for local departments to hire more officers and is the single biggest reason why local governments have been able to keep a 2% tax cap on property taxes in place.”

The state of law enforcement throughout the county has been in tumult for some time, with several local departments insisting they should remain as they are, and the police union for the sheriffs insisting that Donovan is acting in her best interests, not those of taxpayers.

Donovan has pointed to the potential cost savings of folding the smaller departments – with their individual administrations and operating costs – into the larger existing county agency.

That didn’t fly in Demarest, where a plan to absorb the department into the BCPD was rejected by freeholders after voters expressed their approval for such a move in a non-binding referendum last November. Demarest officials then began talking about layoffs to make up for a budget gap.

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