Linden mayor’s police escort draws questions from officials

LINDEN, NJ — Current and former city officials are questioning Mayor Derek Armstead’s use of a police escort for social events even though he has a city-issued vehicle, a practice that the city attorney said is permissible.

Council members Gretchen Hickey and Jorge Alvarez, along with former mayor Richard Gerbounka, said a police escort was used to pick up Armstead from the Linden Fire Department’s Annual Dinner and Dance on Feb. 2 at Galloping Hill Caterers at the Five Points intersection in Union. The mayor, in a statement, confirmed he used a police escort for the event.

“On a busy Friday evening, taking even one patrol vehicle off the road represents appalling lapse in judgment and lack of concern for the safety of our residents,” Hickey said in a Feb. 13 statement, which attached a video she said had been sent to her by a resident showing Armstead entering a marked police car.

The city attorney said that since the mayor is head of the police department — as he appoints the police chief — he may use a city-issued vehicle or have a uniformed officer guard 24/7.

Armstead, meanwhile, said Hickey should “concentrate on reading and familiarizing herself with city policies.”
“By doing so, when a resident has an inquiry about my use of a police vehicle, or any other rumors, she could properly inform the resident, thus eliminating any such rumors, and thereby she could be an asset to our city, if not to my administration,” Armstead said in a Feb. 14 statement.

The disclosure comes as Armstead has announced his candidacy for the vice chair position in the Union County Democratic Committee with Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr, the committee’s acting chairwoman, as his running mate. Hickey and other council members have endorsed the mayor’s opposition, state Sen. Nicholas Scutari for chair.

According to Councilman Barry Javick, the mayor’s police escort may be necessary for protection purposes. He claimed Armstead has had issues with people “stalking” him and some “run-ins.”

“I still think it’s being done,” Javick said in a Feb. 15 phone interview. “Pictures are showing up and they’re following him around and different things.”

Last year, a city firefighter alleged Armstead had assaulted him during a fundraising event. No charges were ever filed in the March 2017 incident, officials said.

Gerbounka, a former city police captain who lost his mayorship to Armstead in 2014, said he had sent a letter to new police Chief David Hart regarding his concerns about the mayor’s police escort Feb. 8.
Gerbounka claimed a police officer had picked up the mayor and his daughter from the Linden Democratic Club’s annual kickoff campaign fundraiser at Nuno’s Pavilion on Roselle Street on Jan. 19. The police car drove Armstead's daughter to Rutgers in New Brunswick and then drove the mayor back to Linden, the letter alleged.

“It has been brought to my attention that Mayor Armstead has been using your department’s officers and vehicles as his personal taxi cab service, even though taxpayers purchased a luxury 2017 SUV Tahoe for his official use,” Gerbounka wrote.

The letter also was signed by Alvarez, who said the council is split in favor of the mayor 6-5, making it difficult to respond to his constituents’ concerns about the mayor’s use of his police escort or his city-issued car.

The city-issued Tahoe the mayor drives was one of several approved for the police department last year, Alvarez and Hickey said. Javick said Armstead had exchanged his original unmarked city-issued vehicle for one purchased for the police department.

“They told us it was going to be for (police) supervisors and then the mayor grabbed one of these Tahoes,” Alvarez said. “And the attorney, which he already got under my skin, he said very simply that (Armstead’s) the head of the department. He’s allowed to take whatever he needs.”
In a statement, Hickey described the Linden Police Department as “understaffed” and currently missing 25 percent of its full complement. While the council has authorized the employment of a total of 153 officers, she said the city currently only has 114 able-bodied officers on hand due to retirements, injuries, academy training and other vacancies.

Armstead said he has increased the size of the local force from 135 to 153 during his tenure.
“The request by the mayor at no time jeopardized the safety of our residents or officers,” Hart said in a recent statement. “Mayor Armstead during his term as mayor has been a big supporter of the police department by not only seeing that our complement is increased, but he has also supported increased training programs and purchase of equipment to help make Linden a safe place to live and work.”