HILLSIDE, NJ — The Hillside Police Department last week held a vote of confidence in Hillside’s acting police Chief Louis Panarese.
The vote of confidence comes in the midst of ongoing strife within the department after Panarese was demoted by Hillside Mayor Angela Garretson last month; the mayor replaced Panarese with Lt. Vincent Ricciardi, who she promoted to the position of acting chief, after which Superior Court Judge Karen Cassidy returned Panarese to the acting chief position.
Garretson demoted Panarese after she dropped her suit against him and the Hillside Town Council because it had reinstated Panarese to the position of chief, overturning Garretson’s initial demotion of Panarese last year.
Ricciardi, meanwhile, filed an appeal with the Civil Service Commission several weeks ago, asking that he be reinstated as chief of police after his short-lived promotion last month.
In an effort to publicly show its support of Panarese, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 82 and FOP Superior Officers Lodge 160 released a joint statement regarding their vote of confidence. The FOP represents all sworn personnel within the Hillside Police Department, which has 54 members.
“The men and women of the Hillside Police Department, specifically FOP Lodge 82 and FOP Superior Officers Lodge 160, would like to announce that we have the utmost faith and confidence in Chief Louis Panarese,” reads the May 17 vote of confidence statement. “Under the leadership of Chief Panarese, the Hillside Police Department is making every effort to provide the residents of Hillside with the same high level of service that they are accustomed to receiving, despite suffering a 25 percent reduction in police force and a 50 percent reduction in administrative staff since his appointment to chief in 2013.”
The statement notes Panarese’s many years of service to the Hillside community.
“Having been raised in Hillside and having served the township for over 34 years, Chief Panarese understands the needs of the community and will stop at nothing to ensure that those needs are met,” reads the statement. “For the last year, Chief Panarese has been fighting to keep his position as chief due to a clerical error, but that has not interfered with his duties of ensuring that the men and women under his command provide the residents of Hillside with a police service that is nothing short of outstanding. In short, we feel he is doing an exemplary job at keeping Hillside safe especially considering the obstacles he faces every day.”
The “clerical error” in the statement refers to the HPD’s 2013 request to the Civil Service Commission to waive the chief’s test. According to Hillside Police Lt. and president of FOB Superior Officers Lodge Michael Cove, Civil Service never responded to the request, and it is assumed that the request was lost or never received.
The statement was signed by Cove. According to Cove, a meeting of both unions took place on May 16, at which time the confidence vote was agreed upon.
“Typically, you hear of people doing a vote of no confidence, but our chief has been through alot,” Cove told LocalSource in a phone interview last week. “He’s been fighting for his position for over a year, and we just want to come out publicly and support him.”
Cove noted the difficult conditions under which he said the chief has been working, stating that the administration refuses to make many police department positions permanent.
“Over the last nine months or so, since he was originally demoted, we’ve been watching what he’s going through,” Cove said of Panarese. “It’s a lot.”
According to Cove, there has been a 25-percent reduction in the force and a 50-percent reduction in the department’s administrative staff.
“He’s trying to run this department with less and while fighting for his job,” Cove said. “He’s still able to motivate everyone in the department while going through all this.”
Manpower at the department is currently at an all-time low, with about 54 officers instead of the desired 75 to 80. According to Cove, there have been 18 retirements in the last four years. In addition, 16 out of 20 supervisory positions at the HPD are acting roles, as the administration allegedly refuses to make the positions permanent, according to Cove.
Garretson told LocalSource that she was unaware of the confidence vote, although she did comment on the legitimacy of Panarese’s appointment as chief.
“No one is entitled to test-based positions unless they actually pass the test,” Garretson said in a May 20 email. “Publicly, the only issue I raised is the fact the municipal council took an illegal vote prior to a civil service test for the position of chief being in place in Hillside like any other municipality. That’s it. That portion I have addressed by calling for the test allowing all qualified present and interested candidates to take the police chief test. The current acting chief did not take it and two additional candidates did. My job and responsibility is done. I will abide by the final determination of NJ Civil Service.”
According to Hillside Democratic Municipal Chairman Anthony Salters, the department’s confidence vote was unfair to police officers.
“The Hillside Police Department is comprised of many dedicated officers who put their lives on the line daily to protect us,” Salters told LocalSource in a May 20 email. “We respect and appreciate them tremendously. It’s really not fair to them to be told to give their current chief a vote of confidence and be dragged into this. We cannot merge personal feelings via a vote to avert or ignore the facts of this situation.”
Salters said that a ruling from the Civil Service Commission is the only factor that carries any weight.
“Mayor Garretson dropped her lawsuit against Chief Panarese last month,” Salters said. “The sole issue simply is about the current police chief who opted not to take the test for his own job and two candidates on the list for police chief that took the test. These police officers have rights also. How do we say we want cccwhat’s fair and ignore this? As I previously said, anything else outside of a written ruling by the NJ Civil Service Department to determine the status of the three officers involved is an emotional waste of time. The matter will be resolved soon enough.”
Mike Flowers, president of FOP Lodge 82, told LocalSource that the majority of union members were in favor of the confidence vote.
“We made the decision to go to the newspaper and join the superior’s union,” Flowers said in a recent phone interview. “We voted ‘yes’ because he’s our chief and we support him. We don’t want to play God but we want to support our chief. It was not unanimous but it was a majority vote. Overall, I think he’s the best candidate for the position. His heart is in the right place and he wants to do what’s best for the township.”
According to Flowers, officers at the HPD have been used by the township’s administration.
“The patrolmen have been used as pawns in this war,” he said. “The powers-that-be have allowed this to happen. We’re always stuck in the middle of the bickering in the township. We don’t deserve it and it’s uncalled for. It’s a shame — it’s a small town and this shouldn’t happen.”
Hillside Police Capt. and HPD spokesman Nick Lamonte said the recent vote solidifies the support and confidence that the department feels regarding the acting chief.
“This negates any false impressions trying to be created by anyone else,” Lamonte told LocalSource in a May 19 email. “These allegations are egregious and without merit. Chief Panarese is who they recognize, trust and want as the chief, and they know he will always have the best interests of the town and the efficient and ethical delivery of police services in mind and with no ulterior motives. He is the chief to all of us.”
Cove said the department wants Panarese to know that they believe in him.
“We want him to know that the guys under him respect him and support him,” he said.