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Molinelli putting county sheriff in charge of regional SWAT, splitting K-9 duties

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

MAJOR CVP EXCLUSIVE: Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli today gave the county police six months to join a regional SWAT team that will be headed by the county sheriff, while giving both county agencies three months to implement a plan dividing specific K-9 duties between them, CLIFFVIEW PILOT has learned.

What that means for the long-term future of the Bergen County Police SWAT team was an open question this afternoon.

For the next six months, however, the BCPD unit remains the first responder to a hostage or other SWAT-related emergency in those towns that don’t have their own squads, Molinelli said.

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 said he is preparing for release sometime next week.

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 an interview this afternoon.

“I’ve asked the Bergen County Police Department to participate in the joint effort,” the prosecutor said. “Whether they do or not is up to them.

“Any additional agency in the county that chooses to do so can participate, as well,” he said, adding that “the command structure and protocols” will be established by the Bergen County Police Chiefs Association, which has been apprised of his decisions.

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

So, he said, he is “reallocating specialized services separately, to remove redundancies. Each will no longer have to hold onto dogs that aren’t essential to their particular function.”

The BCPD will handle all accelerant and bomb calls, the prosecutor said.

The BCSO will handle all narcotics and cadaver calls, he said.

“I will be directing police chiefs to make those calls to the appropriate agency,” the prosecutor said.

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 retiring Tenafly Police Chief Michael Bruno, submitted “an exemplary report” to him this morning at a Law Services Review Board meeting at the prosecutor’s office in Paramus, Molinelli said.

Saudino attended the  meeting, but Higgins didn’t.

Saudino said it would be improper to comment right now, given that Molinelli is in the middle of formalizing his directive. The prosecutor is also preparing a memo to go to the chiefs of all police agencies in the county.

Higgins hadn’t returned a text or phone call as of 4 p.m.

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.”

CLIFFVIEW PILOT uncovered the news hours before County Executive Kathleen Donovan was to introduce her annual budget at an afternoon meeting of the Board of Chosen Freeholders.

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.

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. Now, Demarest officials are talking about layoffs to make up for a budget gap.

Freeholder Chairman David Ganz told CLIFFVIEW PILOT earlier this month that he’s asked Higgins for a blueprint showing how his department “could cover all the Northern Valley towns” following the vote. It was unclear this afternoon whether that ever happened.

New freeholders Tracy Silna Zur and Steve Tanelli campaigned on merging the two county agencies.

The new board would still need five votes to override an expected veto by Donovan, however.

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