Ridgewood News

By Darius Amos

Two police recruits whose conditional employment offers were recalled in January may be on target to re-join the force in March. The Ridgewood Council reached a consensus Wednesday night on a draft ordinance that would essentially eliminate the cap placed on the number of patrol officers in the village police department.

Ridgewood Police Chief John Ward and Capt. Jacqueline Luthcke speak to members of the Village Council about the need to start training new recruits to replace officers who will be retiring in the next year.

Ridgewood Police Chief John Ward and Capt. Jacqueline Luthcke speak to members of the Village Council about the need to start training new recruits to replace officers who will be retiring in the next year.

The proposed ordinance is scheduled for introduction at a Feb. 19 council meeting. If the change is passed in March, the two officers will likely enter the Essex County Police Academy.

Current Ridgewood code establishes a department maximum of 30 patrol officers. On Jan. 17, Police Chief John Ward extended conditional offers of employment to two recruits, both of whom are related to current or former members of the police department. Days after the hiring decisions, Village Council members noted that the two hires pushed the officer roster beyond the allowable amount.

At a Jan. 29 meeting, the council opted to delay the immediate introduction of an ordinance change, with the majority of the members hoping for further discussion and answers to specific inquiries. The decision created a state of limbo for the officers, who as a result were not permitted to enter the Bergen County Police Academy class that started the following morning.

At this week’s work session, Ward, Police Capt. Jacqueline Luthcke and members of the council agreed to terms of a potential new ordinance.

Ward explained that the department anticipates retirements of seven senior command staff by the end of 2015, with four of those departures potentially coming between May and June of next year. He and the acting village manager both agreed to a staggered hiring of new officers to replace the potential retirees.

Answering questions from Deputy Mayor Albert Pucciarelli, the police chief explained that approximately nine months can lapse between the time a recruit is hired and when the officer begins patrol. Before an officer can go on solo patrol, “a candidate goes to the academy, it’s six months of academy, then three months of field training,” Ward said.

He further explained that with the new hires in place, the current junior officers can begin the training cycle to advance to senior positions, ranks which will eventually become vacant after next year’s retirements. Ward said new senior officers must be trained in areas such as internal affairs, and evidence and subpoena processing, among others.

“It takes a while to learn and master,” Ward said. “That’s why we need [the new hires] a little in advance. That’s the reason why I set out the gradual implementation [of the hiring plan].”

If the two hires join the force next month, Ward expects them to be on patrol in the village at the beginning of 2015.

Also part of the 2014 hiring plan, for which funding has already been approved, is the July hiring of two more patrol officers. Should those hires go through the planned training, they will be on the road in April 2015.

“We are hoping to have a three-month gap for officers to take over for those leaving,” he said.

Several council members, who reviewed the Jan. 17 candidates for hire, expressed their regret Wednesday for overlooking the current police ordinance and the number of officers employed.

“I apologize to the public, I had the number wrong,” said Councilwoman Bernadette Walsh. “I feel strongly that we need the officers on the street.”

Councilman Tom Riche, who along with Walsh and Mayor Paul Aronsohn approved the 30-officer limit in 2011, also apologized and added that the cap on officers now seemed random.

“I don’t know why it got by me; shame on me for that. But I don’t know why we have the arbitrary number. We can always limit the number through funding mechanisms,” Riche said.

“I’m really sorry the two young men are caught in the middle. That was not the intention of this council to victimize two young men,” added Pucciarelli. “If there is a way to make that right, I would like to make that right.”

Council members agreed to eliminate the maximum number of police officers, but “would leave hiring decisions to the village manager with budget authority remaining with the council,” Aronsohn said.

The ordinance will also include language that fundamentally re-creates a school resource officer.

“I am a strong proponent of reinstating the school resource officer program,” the mayor added after Wednesday’s meeting. “It would allow us to provide our schools with additional security, and it would help create a better, stronger relationship between students and police officers.”


BCPO to investigate


The conditional offers of employment extended to the two police recruits last month were in accordance with all procedures established by the state Civil Service Commission and the Department of Community Affairs’ Best Practices checklist, Ward said. But in spite of his beliefs, Ward has requested that the county’s highest law enforcement agency conduct an investigation of himself and the department to determine whether their actions were appropriate and legal.

The Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office (BCPO) has acknowledged and will comply with the police department’s request to assess Ward’s decision to hire two police officers, a move that increased Ridgewood‘s patrol roster beyond the limit allowed under current village ordinance.

“It’s asking a bit of the prosecutor’s office, and it’s unusual that someone start an investigation on himself,” Ward told The Ridgewood News this week. “I built a reputation of my integrity and the integrity of this department. We worked hard at it.

“The public needs to feel comfortable with its public leaders,” he said.

According to a statement released by the BCPO, no specific timeframe exists for the start and completion of the investigation.

Ward, as well as Luthcke and Lt. Forest Lyons, filed separate requests with the prosecutor’s office last on Jan. 30, one day after the chief’s initail appearance before the Ridgewood governing body asking for a change that would have retroactively amended the ordinance to increase the size of the police force.

This week, Aronsohn noted that the request for the investigation is part of the state Attorney General’s guidelines. Since the investigation is centered on the moves by the chief of police, the matter is referred to an outside agency, the mayor explained.

Ridgewood police candidates are selected through the results of the Civil Service Commission testing. Individuals are listed and ranked based on their scores, and departments that are hiring, such as Ridgewood, notify the top recruits. The list can change, Ward said, when individuals are hired or if they do not respond to department inquiries.

In Ridgewood, once candidates are identified, they are interviewed by a separate panel. The panel can consist of as many as six line officers, union members and middle management officials. Following that process, the panel then sends its recommendations to the village manager.

“People have made allegations that I or the department has done something improper. We take that seriously,” he added. “We’re a flagship, accredited organization. We want to assure people that they can trust us.”

Email: amos@northjersey.com