MOUNTAINSIDE, NJ – There’s a small patch of land along U.S. Route 22 notable for its absence of strip malls. It’s an oasis in s sea of hair salons, video game stores and other retail properties that line the highway for miles.
The borough here has zoned that area in a way so as to keep the highway’s hustle and bustle at arm’s length from its tree-lined streets, well-manicured lawns and single-family homes.
The serenity of this four square-mile hamlet of 7,000 or so residents was broken May 11 when five male police officers and a female clerical employee filed a 46-page lawsuit in Superior Court against the borough containing accusations of sexual harassment and assault.
Mayor Paul Mirabelli took the first step to, as he put it, “make sure the pride we have in our police department is going to continue” when he announced at the June 5 council meeting that the borough had hired a former cop with almost 50 years of experience running and reforming several departments.
Joe Santiago, the former police director in Newark, Trenton and Irvington, who also served a stormy seven-month stint as the head of the New Jersey State Police, has a long track record of helping departments in crisis. It will be his job to make suggestions as to how to restore Mountainside’s tranquility.
Santiago, 70, said he started his consulting business, Santiago Associates LLC, to utilize his experience and expertise to help municipal police departments not only best serve the public, but in some cases help them restore their tarnished reputations.
To do that in Mountainside, Santiago said he will soon embark on a fact-finding mission by interviewing members of the department.
“When I spoke to the mayor and his representatives, my idea was to try to get a handle on what the expectations are particularly within the agency, what the political body wants and, in some cases, I’m not going to talk directly to the community, but what are the expectations of the community,” Santiago said. ‘I think what the mayor wanted from me was to go in there and assess to the degree I can the existing leadership.
“Despite all of this, they still need to do their jobs. I think he wants to make sure the people of Mountainside are not let down or the department is not functioning the way it should because of whatever is going on. I think that’s his first order of business.”
The consequence of the lawsuit filed by officers Jeffrey Stinner, Christopher Feighner, Richard Latargia, Thomas Norton and James Urban as well as Amy Colineri, who formerly worked as a part-time dispatcher and now works as a part-time clerical employee in the department, has decimated the ranks of the Mountainside Police Department’s senior leadership. Three senior members, including Chief Allan Attanasio, have been placed on paid administrative leave.
Lt. Joseph Giannuzzi has been installed as the officer in charge.
It is not clear if Santiago’s findings will factor in Mirabelli’s decision if and/or when a new leader of the department is chosen. Calls and text messages sent to Mirabelli were not returned, but Santiago said, “I would gladly give it to them if I’m asked in terms of assessing personnel.”
Santiago said the mayor instructed him not to focus on the contents of the lawsuit against the borough. Mirabelli said at the June 5 council meeting that the Union County Prosecutor’s Office has launched an investigation into accusations in the lawsuit. The borough, which has retained former Assistant U.S. Attorney William Maderer, is also conducting its own investigation.
The mayor said the borough will be represented by Christine Amalfe, of Gibbons P.C. law firm in Newark, and will “as quickly as possible, remove any individual who does not represent Mountainside in a professional manner.”
The lawsuit alleges behavior dating back nearly 20 years and accuses Detective Sgt. Andrew Huber and Lt. Thomas Murphy of being the principal offenders, as well as Attanasio.
Among the allegations in the lawsuit are that Attanasio pointed a laser-sighted pistol at subordinates as a lower-ranking officer and that Huber would display a phallic sex toy dubbed Big Blue that he would throw at officers and wave in their faces. A video provided to the LocalSource reportedly shows Huber removing the toy from a filing cabinet and waving it in an unidentified man’s face while another man, identified as Murphy, laughs and apparently uses his cell phone to record the event.
Keeping the events alleged in the lawsuit separate from his role as a consultant could prove impossible, however.
“I’m not going to do an investigation,” Santiago said. “What I’m going to do is talk to people inside the agency in terms of how the agency operates. I don’t know if that information (about the lawsuit) will come to me, but if it comes to me, I will steer it to the proper person. I don’t believe it’s the role that’s been defined for me to get to the bottom of all that. If there’s information that people volunteer, I guess my role will be to make sure that information gets where it needs to go so that the people who are dealing with that can handle it.”
However, gaining a department’s cooperation, Santiago said, can sometimes be a challenge. He said the nature of police work, where officers don’t know from day to day if they will be called upon to protect each others’ lives, sometimes means they have formed a close bond. Santiago, for all of his experience, feels as if he’s not always welcomed.
“The hardest issue I’ve had in any of the agencies is dealing with the organizational culture,” he said. “Cops by their nature are secretive. They depend on each other. By their nature, police organizations are a little secretive. They exercise a lot of authority in a community and in some cases … I don’t know. I don’t want to get ahead of myself because I don’t know if there are those kind of issues in Mountainside. But I’m going to be looking to see if there are and if there are things I can suggest to the mayor and the council to see if they can fix it.”
Santiago said he has been in charge of police agencies with as many as 4,000 members. His assignments have taken him to some of the biggest cities in the state. Mountainside is decidedly more suburban. Working with a police department with only 22 members, including three on leave, will be a new experience.
“The agencies I’ve worked were in some type of crisis in one way or the other,” he said. “They had significant crime issues. I think the importance of the agency to the community was significant in that they expected something to be done about that.
“However, in a town like Mountainside, you don’t have those issues, but the fundamental aspects of police management, professionalism, accountability and transparency I think are things that run through any agency whether its urban or suburban. Maybe they don’t have the crime problem to focus on. Maybe there are other things you need to focus on to ensure the community thinks it’s getting its money’s worth from the police department. The way you solve the problems are the same. Just because something is smaller, doesn’t mean it’s easier.”
Santiago characterized his time as the New Jersey state police police superintendent as the low point of his professional career.
Santiago was promoted to the post in 2002, becoming the first Hispanic and the first non-trooper to oversee state police. It lasted just seven months, though, before he was asked to resign by Gov. James McGreavy.
Santiago’s tenure was marked by allegations – that he continues to deny – of having organized crime connections. When he left to become the director of the Trenton police department, he was being investigated by attorney general’s office for allegedly using hundreds of thousands of dollars of state money to furnish his office.
“You constantly read unsubstantiated allegations, which is what they are,” Santiago said. “I think I came away from it humbled I guess would be the word because I’ve always prided myself on my integrity that I bring to any organization. I was stung by the politics. I’m not going to go into the details of what was going on and even what happened after.”
At heart, Santiago describes himself as an honest cop doing the only thing he’s ever wanted to do with his life. He jokes about how his daughter, Carisa, has followed him into the family business. He said she is a captain in the Essex County Sheriff’s Department.
He said even his tumultuous time with the state police resulted in some changes he is proud of. When he was hired, the department was embroiled in controversy surrounding allegations of widespread racial profiling. The state staved off a civil rights suit from the U.S. Justice Department when the state troopers agreed to sweeping reforms.
“I came in there in the aftermath of the racial profiling,” Santiago said. “We put the cameras in the cars. I’m happy to say all the reforms that were instituted during that time still exist and are being carried out. A couple of things that we did have continued to go on even though they’ve changed the names to protect the innocent.
“Even though that was a tough personal time for me, in terms of the professional aspects of it I believe they started them on the road to getting back to respectability in terms of how they’re viewed by the community and throughout the state.”