HILLSIDE, NJ — Police department decor has changed these days, at least in Hillside. More than 20 buckets and garbage cans dot headquarters, collecting water from gaping holes in the warped and stained ceiling. Blue tarps cover computers and printers to shield from leaking water coming from a severely damaged roof. Garbage bags cover the leaking, cavernous holes and sagging ceilings throughout the building.
Mold, damaged and destroyed computers — including a $20,000 fingerprinting machine — exposed wires, and damaged floors are just some of the issues plaguing Hillside’s police headquarters. Outside, huge cracks in the concrete foundation and walkways greet visitors. Out in the parking lot, a fleet of old and damaged patrol cars wait in dire need of repair.
According to Officer Matt Casterline, Union President for the Patrolmen’s Association, repeated requests for mitigating the issues have gone unheeded by Hillside Mayor Angela Garretson.
“We don’t understand why the mayor is so vindictive towards us,” said Casterline. “I just want our guys to work in a professional environment.”
According to Casterline, the department was cited by The Occupational Safety and Health Administration for more than ten violations that have either been temporarily mitigated with metaphorical duct tape, or not addressed at all.
“She’s known about it since she was council president,” said Casterline, referring to Garretson’s time on the Hillside Town Council. “You know what her temporary fix was for the leaking roof when there was snow up there? She put a guy up there with a snow blower.”
At press time, both Garretson and Council President Donald DeAugustine were unavailable for comment.
But according to Stephanie Bush-Baskette, Hillside’s business administrator, it is the fault of the previous administration. She says that it is Garretson’s administration that is trying to alleviate the situation.
“The township must have known prior to Mayor Garretson,” said Bush-Baskette of the issues. “Now, under this administration, it’s being addressed. We are in active mode.”
Bush-Baskette says that the township is in in contract to replace both the roofs of the municipal building and the police department at the cost of about $700,000. According to Bush-Baskette, supplies and machinery have already been delivered to the building and the roof work, which will take approximately six weeks to complete, will begin immediately. “That will alleviate the problems of the roof leakage and the damaged computers,” she said. According to Bush-Baskette, the township has already secured the funds to pay for the roof. Bush-Baskette went on to say that the township is working on bringing in new patrol cars. Bush-Baskette said that covering costs is always an issue.
“The problem is paying for it,” said Bush-Baskette.
According to Bush-Baskette, it is difficult for the township to get grants, so the administration may need to rely on loans, bonding and taxes. “Our last resort is raising taxes,” she said. “I know the mayor and the council are interested in staying steady with the tax rate.”
But according to Casterline, he has heard nothing about any imminent actions on the part of the mayor to mitigate the problems. “We have no knowledge of that whatsoever,” said Casterline. “Why wouldn’t they tell us if they were doing something?”
Former Hillside town council president Salonia Saxton says that part of the problem is Garretson’s need to micromanage the department.
“You cannot micromanage every department,” said Saxton. “That’s why we have department heads. We were going to work collectively to get new patrol cars.”
But, according to Saxton, nothing came of it. “Her goal is to control. If it’s not her idea, nothing will ever get done,” said Saxton of the mayor. “This mayor will go to any extreme. Anything that Panarese wants to do, she wants to block it — it doesn’t matter what it is,” she said of Garretson and her dealings with the former police chief.
Saxton described the volatility of the situation inside the department. “The mayor has disrespected Captain Panarese,” said Saxton. “She gets in his face and tries to belittle him in front of the other officers.”
Bush-Baskette says that the administration is aware of the department’s needs and is taking them seriously.
“Yes, there are needs, and we take them seriously,” said Bush-Baskette. “But we also have to be judicious in how we’re going to spend the taxpayer’s money.” According to Bush-Baskette, the administration is working with acting Chief of Police Richard Floyd on some of the ongoing issues.
Casterline says that a new patrol car has not been purchased in 10 years, despite money being budgeted every year for that particular line item.
“Our cars are unsafe,” said Casterline. “They have upwards of 100,000 miles on them and are aesthetically displeasing. The cars represent the town and are an embarrassment.”
According to Casterline, the cars have exposed wiring, balding tires and dents. In addition, there are simply not enough cars.
“The other night we had ten guys here and four cars,” said Casterline. But although the department is working under terrible conditions, Casterline says, the citizens of Hillside will always be the priority.
“Hillside Police will never make its citizens suffer,” said Casterline. “Citizens will always be protected, and not pay because of our lack of cars or manpower.”
Bush-Baskette says that the deterioration of the department’s building is to be expected. “What you’re seeing happens in many towns,” said Bush-Baskette. “We’re working on doing the budget now. They are indicating what their facility and vehicle needs are. We want to make sure they are safe and have what they need, but we also need to think about the taxpayers,” she said.
Employees at the department, however, don’t seem to think anything is changing anytime soon. “The bathrooms are disgusting,” said one employee who declined to give her name. “I won’t even use the bathrooms here.”
And, according to another employee who requested anonymity, the building’s structural damage — specifically the crumbling ramp and entrance to the front of the building — is a real hazard. “Imagine what would happen with that in the case of a 911 call,” she remarked, pointing to the cracked and disintegrating walkway ramp.
Saxton says that the issues need to be addressed, and that the citizens of Hillside deserve answers. “This is like a huge forest fire that is being allowed to burn,” said Saxton. “She is completely out of control. It’s a shame for the township.”
Casterline says that it is important for the citizens of Hillside to know that they will not be forgotten. “The residents will never have to pay for what’s going on,” said Casterline of the problems that persist inside the department. “My cops won’t stop being the best cops in Union County.”