A peek behind the curtain

Left Out

By frank capece

When Summit Councilman Tom Getzendanner spoke at last week’s meeting of the Union County Freeholders, pressing for studying a merger of the County Police with the Sheriff’s department, he became part of a diverse group who are giving a closer scrutiny to the budgets and operation of law enforcement.

Getzendanner argued that since only Bergen and Union counties have separate operations of county police and sheriff’s office, it was time to study the possibility of a merger. He saw this as a better path than the privatization of the jail, which is the direction Union County seems pointed.  Since Bergen defeated the effort to disband their county police as a tax saving move, Union may not be in any rush on mergers.

Still, the Summit Councilman’s move may place him in an eclectic group including a diligent Cranford blogger and the ACLU all arguing that law enforcement is not immune from review regarding their spending. Call it peeking behind the curtains.

From big numbers to the smaller ones, there is a new group of watchdogs on law enforcement spending. Take the case of the unnamed blogger in Cranford who claims to have the big time auto mileage used by the Acting Administrator and Police Chief Eric Mason in a town car. The blogger questions how does a guy with two desk jobs rack up so many miles, but keep in mind it is all conjecture.

But it brings to mind a former Councilman in central Union County who went nothing short of ballistic when spotting the then local chief and his wife cruising at the Jersey Shore in the town’s Crown Victoria one weekend. With the Crown Victoria’s being phased out, it may be harder to spot personally-cruising law officials.

Every so often, high ranking public officials are brought to task for the use of a publicly paid vehicle. Generally, law enforcement is carved out as an exception.  If the Cranford blogger has his way that may all be changed.

More substantially, is the 1500-page report of the ACLU titled “Trial and Error — A Comprehensive Study of Prosecutorial Conduct in New Jersey.” It studied prosecutorial abuse at trials. It ended up being a report that took hits from all sides.

County Prosecutors armed with a bevy of in-house developed statistics spoke of the fairness of their operations. It needs to be pointed out that the ACLU generally found the efforts of prosecutors to be even handed. The report still called for increased oversite of county prosecutors by the state.

J.C. Lore III, a prominent law professor at Rutgers, refuted the fairness argument saying there was “under reporting whatever error there is because most criminal cases aren’t appealed.”

More problematic is the annual study of the offices of the 21 county prosecutors by the New Jersey Law Journal.

The analysis is relied on by the freeholders who yearly must review the budget wish lists of the prosecutors. With the largest population,Essex County leads in the number of prosecutors employed with 127. Bergen has only 53 prosecutors. Hudson County has 67. Despite comparative populations, Middlesex with only 46 and Passaic with 47 fare better than Union County with 64 full-time prosecutors.

And even the ACLU takes it on the chin sometimes. New Jersey Federal Judge Ester Salez declined their effort to delve into the FBI’s methods of collecting racial, ethic and cultural data. She sided with the FBI citing the need to withhold the information summary because of National Security concerns.

One fellow who fought city hall and won was cameraman Kelly Ramos from Trenton.  A six-year battle has ended when his efforts at filming gang activity were stopped by police. He was vindicated at the end of the battle. The Court made the point of saying “a reasonable police officer in 2006 could not have believed he had the absolute right to preclude Ramos from videotaping any gang activity.”

It does raise the idea of some enterprising fellow filming the budget meetings with various law enforcement agencies next winter when they make their arguments for bigger budgets from the county.