County task force will no longer investigate Elizabeth homicides

The Union County Prosecutor’s office decided last week they will no longer investigate homicides in Elizabeth, effective immediately. Elizabeth officials, however, were unfazed by the announcement.

The move, in the works since September, came after Prosecutor Theodore Romankow decided he could no longer expend the Homicide Task Force manpower hours required to tackle all the homicides in the city.

Romankow said he made the decision after four years of asking for Elizabeth to send city detectives to help man the task force and being turned down.

The task force, half county detectives and half local detectives sent by municipalities usually for a year, has a staff of around 20. But, the prosecutor stressed, it’s the amount of time being spent on Elizabeth murders that continued to raise concern.

For example, Romankow reported that Elizabeth had 50 percent of the murders last year, 12 out of 21 murders this year already. Last year investigations of Elizabeth murders alone required a minimum of 12,000 man hours, plus overtime, by the task force, he added.

“What do I tell other towns when they consistently send us detectives and end up spending all their time investigating murders in Elizabeth?” Romankow said, adding  “You can’t expect smaller towns to continue to man the task force when the largest city in the county with the most murders refuses to send even one detective.”

If the prosecutor thought his announcement last Friday would spur a shocked reaction from either Police Director James Cosgrove or Mayor Chris Bollwage, he was wrong. In fact, neither seemed fazed by the abrupt change.

“We can handle our own murders. We did it before the task force was formed and we can do it again,” Cosgrove said in an interview Monday.

When asked why he has never sent any detective to the task force, Cosgrove said “it’s a waste of personnel.”

“I can’t devote four detectives to the task force. The prosecutor is not responsible for running this police department on a day to day basis. I am. Murders are not the only crime going on here. We have other crime to handle,” the police director explained, pointing out that he has to allocate his officers according to need.

“We do everything here. There are 100,000 calls for service in Elizabeth every year,” he said, but added that “we are fully capable of doing this.”

As for taking on all the murder investigations from start to finish, Cosgrove had no doubt his department was ready, willing and quite able.

“We did it before,” he said, adding that overall crime was down 16 percent in the city.

Romankow, though, had a different view of how things were back then. He said when the task force formed in 2008, Elizabeth had a record of 70 percent of homicides not being solved.

“They would start to investigate a homicide but after a week or two they would move on to handling other crimes that happened in the city,” Romankow said, admitting that this is often what happens in a municipality. “They just had other crimes to solve.”

But the prosecutor explained his announcement did not come out of the blue.

Romankow said he sent city officials, including Cosgrove, a letter Sept. 10 explaining that if they did not send detectives to work on the task force, he would be forced to shut down all homicide investigations in Elizabeth.

“Let me make this clear, I did not abandon Elizabeth. Since 2008 when we formed the task force they have refused to send even one detective to work with us,” the prosecutor explained.

Romankow also pointed out that he made sure Elizabeth police officers and detectives were ready to take on the challenge of solving their own homicides.

“We had 15 of their officers in here for training last week and they are up for the challenge,” the prosecutor said. He also  warned that things are not the way they used  to be and the job ahead is labor intensive.

“These days when you go to court you have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person is guilty. It’s very complicated,” he explained, adding that between court orders, video tape statements, “it is labor intensive.”

“It’s not like the old days,” Romankow added. But he also intends to ensure the city has help from his office.

“I’m not walking away from Elizabeth entirely,” Romankow said, pointing out he assigned an assistant prosecutor to monitor every homicide case and ensure his office gets all the reports required.

“I know these officers can do it,” the prosecutor said, but admitted he did have concerns that the “solve rate” would drop.

Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage did not respond to requests for an interview but he emailed a brief statement to LocalSource regarding Romankow’s move.

“The Elizabeth Police Department has been a part of and/or solved every homicide the prosecutor’s office has taken credit for,” the mayor said.

Romankow, however, strongly disagreed with the mayor’s stance.

“Just because Elizabeth officers were on the scene doesn’t mean they were actively engaged in solving these homicides,” the prosecutor said, adding that while he will concede that city officers, at times, did help the task force, he felt “the real credit” belonged to the task force.

As for Bollwage’s comment about the prosecutors office taking credit for murders solved by Elizabeth, Romankow did not hesitate to respond in kind.

“The man knows less about homicide investigations in Elizabeth than he knows about gangs,” the prosecutor said, adding that Bollwage refused in 2010 and 2011 to  report the number of gang related incidents in Elizabeth to the state police for their annual uniform crime report.

This annual report documents every type of crime that takes place in municipalities throughout the state, including gang violence, homicides, robberies, and rapes, among other non violent crimes like burglary.

Prior to the task force forming, the prosecutor said, his office helped Elizabeth with homicides, but stepping in after investigations were started proved to be difficult.

“If we had been in on things from the start we might have looked into other areas, such as crime scene investigation, blood splatter and other things that lead to solving a homicide,” Romankow said.

“When you work on a case part time, like most towns have to do because they don’t have the manpower a homicide task force does, you never get the same results,” he added.

Romankow pointed out, for example, that a task force member spent an entire year on one homicide, tearing it down piece by piece until he broke the case.

“We have a 70 percent solve rate,” the prosecutor said, adding Elizabeth’s solve rate was just 30 percent when the  county task force formed in 2008.

“Look, I have the utmost respect for the Elizabeth police, but I don’t think the police director or mayor realize we spent 12,000 man hours solving homicides last year in their city,” Romankow said, adding that number did not include overtime hours.

Municipalities that send detectives to the task force pay the salary of their detective while they are working for the prosecutor. But the prosecutor’s office pays all overtime.

“They just don’t care that we are spending untold hours working on homicides in their city,” Romankow added.

“We are the voice of the people who are murdered, but this office is being squeezed and smaller towns just can’t be expected to pull the entire load,” he added.

Romankow said his primary responsibility as prosecutor last year was to ensure 6,000 cases were prosecuted.

“This decision did not come easy. Am I doing the right thing? My conscience says I am,” the prosecutor confessed, adding that the county cut his budget by $1 million and with no help from Elizabeth, something had to be done.