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Higgins calls actions by ‘stellar’ officers in trooper confrontation ‘inappropriate’

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot File Photo

UPDATE: Bergen County Police Chief Brian Higgins today wrote that “poor judg[e]ment” and “inappropriate” behavior by two of his officers in a confrontation they had with a New Jersey State Police trooper in May left him “disappointed.”

Higgins also told in the email that the single incident “should not be the measure by which opinions are shaped” about two “stellar employees.”

This comes after County Executive Kathleen Donovan’s chief of staff on Friday cited a “breakdown of professionalism” – which, at the time, was the first public criticism by county administration of the officers’ actions.

It also follows an apology by two county freeholders earlier today to the trooper involved.

The two, John Mitchell and John Felice, like Donovan, are Republicans. They repeated their support for folding the county police into the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office – a move touted by a trio of Democrat freeholders.

Freeholder Chairman David Ganz, also a Democrat, told CLIFFVIEW PILOT that he is likely to go for a consolidation plan, as well, leaving Republican Maura DeNicola as the lone declared opponent. Eliminating the county police, she said, would burden municipalities with additional responsibilities and “result in increased costs to the taxpayer in order to maintain law enforcement standards.”

Proponents of the plan said few county officers would be adversely affected. An estimated dozen are eligible for retirement, they’ve noted, while others could be absorbed into the county’s dispatch center in Mahwah. County Sheriff Michael Saudino said attrition – not layoffs – would quickly bring the new agency to an affordable size and save an increasing amount of taxpayer dollars.

Opponents have said the move concentrates too much power in the hands of an elected official. Proponents counter that Saudino, a former Emerson police chief, comes from a long line of active or retired lawmen who became Bergen’s sheriff. His Democratic opponent in the November election, James Mordaga, is the county’s former law and public safety director.

( NOTE: The top law enforcement officer in the county is neither the county police nor the sheriff. It is an appointed official – the county prosecutor.)

The belief is that the freeholders will vote on a consolidation plan before the November election, possibly within the next two weeks.

Donovan is expected to then veto the move. The seven-member freeholder board would have the necessary five votes – not counting Ganz – to override her veto.

If previous actions are any indicator, Donovan would then sue to stop the move. It could take several months for the issue to then be decided – but only if she obtains an injunction.

Earlier this year, Superior Court Judge Joseph Conte upheld his decision not to grant the county executive an injunction against pay raises that she’s denied to sheriff’s officers. The state Appellate Division then overruled Conte, granting the injunction while it reviewed the case ( SEE: State court upholds Donovan request for delay in Bergen sheriff’s contract ).

“Time is money and the time to act is before us,” Mitchell and Felice said in a statement today about consolidating county police services.

Mitchell and Felice also apologized to the trooper: “The actions taken by Bergen County’s Police Officers were reprehensible and inexcusable. No one should be subjected to the abusive language and posture these men presented. For all the people of Bergen County, we apologize.”

At the same time, they said that the matter isn’t closed. “We believe further investigation is necessary to ensure that appropriate action was taken,” the pair said.

Their statement followed one issued two days ago by Democratic Freeholders Joan Voss, Steve Tanelli and Tracy Zur after viewed a video from the trooper’s dashboard camera showing the profanity-laced confrontation:

Voss, Tanelli and Zur also renewed their insistence that Donovan support the police merger to “increase accountability and eliminate continued duplicative services within county law enforcement,” and demanded that Higgins be removed as Bergen’s public safety director.

Donovan, in turn, accused them of “another cheap political trick.”

“My number one concern is the safety of our residents. I’m not at all interested in furthering the political circus that some people are trying to make out of law enforcement in Bergen County,” Donovan said, through an email to CLIFFVIEW PILOT from her chief of staff, Jeanne Baratta. “I want to protect lives, and the county police have demonstrated for 96 years that they are an integral part of cooperative law enforcement among the 70 municipalities in Bergen County.”

Baratta added to the statement, referring to “an unfortunate breakdown of professionalism” by the officers. She also called Higgins “a consummate professional” whom Donovan has “no intention of replacing.”

Higgins has not responded to texts, phone calls, emails or messages left with others for him by CLIFFVIEW PILOT — either about the May 31 Turnpike incident or a number of other matters involving his department.

Because he is both county police chief and public safety director, Higgins reports directly to Donovan (The county executive said she merged the two positions after Mordaga retired as a way of saving taxpayer dollars). As a result, queries that Higgins has ignored have been directed to her office. Almost immediate responses from Baratta have followed each time.

On Thursday, Higgins told , one of the PILOT ’s news partners, that he considered no one at fault in the confrontation. He “made no specific mention of any discipline being handed out,” the article says.

Later that day, Baratta officially confirmed that the two officers had been disciplined. She said State Attorney General guidelines prevented anyone saying any more about it.

Higgins, however, responded in an email to today that the officers were removed from their assignments and placed on unspecified administrative duty.

He also said his department should have notified the State Police – which has jurisdiction over the Turnpike – when the stop was made. He didn’t say why they didn’t.

“The poor judgement [judgment] and inappropriate [ MISSING WORD ] displayed by two officers, officers who are otherwise stellar employees, in a single incident, should not be the measure by which opinions are shaped,” said he added.

Members of the Donovan administration privately have maintained that the trooper ignited the anger of both plainclothes officers by drawing his gun briefly as he walked toward an unmarked mini-van one of them had used to pull over a motorist.

As the video shows, the trooper explained several times during the May 31 incident that his concerns were raised because carjackers wearing tactical vests and posing as police had recently victimized motorists on the Turnpike.

Col. Rick Fuentes, the State Police superintendent, backed his trooper, citing two police-imposter carjacking incidents in the two weeks before the fateful confrontation. State Police said Fuentes didn’t see any reason for disciplining the trooper in any way.

CLIFFVIEW PILOT , which broke the story in June, was the first to publish the trooper’s report on Wednesday ( SEE: NJSP report: Trooper confronted by Bergen County police ).

It then followed with the first posting of the dash-cam video, along with copies of a pair of “be on the lookout for” bulletins issued by State Police to law enforcement agencies throughout New Jersey about the carjackings ( SEE: VIDEO: NJ State Police dashboard camera shows confrontation with Bergen Countly police ). As of early this evening, the PILOT ‘s two postings of the video had been viewed more than 117,000 times on YouTube alone.

The Democratic freeholders also pointed to another incident, this one in which DeNicola was pulled over by a sheriff’s officer, only to have two county officers arrive on the scene a short time later. The sheriff’s officer said he felt “distracted and intimidated” by his BCPD counterparts.

( CLIFFVIEW PILOT broke that story, as well: Bergen sheriff’s officer claims being ‘distracted, intimidated’ by county police after stopping freeholder )

Those involved in the battle over how best to police Bergen have been waiting for a consolidation plan promised by the Democrats several months ago. Tanelli on Friday said the plan they eventually come up with “will not only save money but [will] improve public safety in Bergen County.”

To which Baratta responded: “We note the political nature of Democrats’ press release, as it took all the way until the second paragraph for them to again press their ongoing campaign to eliminate the county police,” she added. “If that’s not political grandstanding, then there is no such thing.

“Our priority in this incident was addressing the safety of ALL law enforcement officers and meting out appropriate discipline immediately after the investigation, not furthering a political agenda.”

Baratta also contended that two sheriff’s officers had recently been arrested but that “the Democrat Freeholders have remained silent on that. Clearly the Democrats have misplaced their priorities.”

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