Palisades Park council president talks lawsuit, controversy on hot mic
For two hours, the hot mic captured conversations about future litigation, controversy over a vacant council seat and more Palisades Park issues.
Kristie Cattafi and Miguel Fernandez, NorthJersey.com
PALISADES PARK — The borough’s Police Department is plagued with heavy political influence and a lack of leadership and procedures, an assessment conducted by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office has found.
The report found that most officers have contributed to or worked with political organizations within the borough, and that those same officers believed the “political influences had done immense harm” to the department. Officers told Prosecutor’s Office investigators the influence has made it difficult to supervise, manage and appropriately discipline officers, as politics affected many of these decisions.
The same political influence may have kept officers from getting adequate training and left them without proper supervision and open to manipulation from political sources, especially when it comes to discipline, the assessment found.
The Prosecutor’s Office found Borough Administrator David Lorenzo’s “persistent interference” in the running of the Police Department “improper and highly distracting” to its leadership.
The Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for more information and whether it has any official power to request changes within the Palisades Park Police Department.
The Prosecutor’s Office began its assessment of the department in September after a jump in the number of investigatory and disciplinary issues. Investigators set out to review the department’s operational and administrative processes and its compliance with law enforcement best practices, Prosecutor’s Office directives and state Attorney General’s Office guidelines, the assessment report said.
In 2022, the department faced a number of issues, including a lawsuit that was settled, three new lawsuits and a tort notice filed internally by officers, and a prisoner escape that led to an investigation by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office. And though no criminal charges were filed, former officer in charge Capt. Shawn Lee retired as part of a settlement agreement and Lt. Alessandro Monteleone resigned.
The department has been led by an officer in charge since Chief Mark Jackson retired in 2019 amid his own controversy after a scathing report that outlined deficiencies in the department.
During the past decade, the department has had five chiefs and numerous issues, including suspensions, lawsuits and infighting. Some of the department’s troubles date to the 1990s, when officers were found to be running a burglary ring that brought unwanted national attention to the department and borough.
Brian Higgins, a former chief of the Bergen County police and an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, said the people who need to spearhead a revitalization of the Police Department are the politicians who are influencing it and causing problems.
The Prosecutor’s Office referred to two other reviews of the department in its assessment. “It’s interesting that they’re all consistent and the glaring issue isn’t even a secret — the open secret of Palisades Park is the political influence,” Higgins said. “The inappropriate influence has caused this situation, but the same people need to fix it, and it appears they don’t have the will and desire to fix it.”
Politics in the Police Department
“Nearly all the officers of the PPPD indicated that political influences had done immense harm,” the report said. “It was evident that many members of the PPPD had either previously contributed to or worked with political organizations within the borough.”
Officers admitted they attended political fundraisers, purchased tickets to fundraisers, assisted in distributing political signs or participated in door-to-door campaigning for candidates.
“While acknowledging their own participation in these activities, officers indicated that hiring, promotions and departmental assignments were often based on an individual officer’s contribution and participation in political activities.”
The officers noted that due to “political influence” within the department, it was difficult to supervise, manage and appropriately discipline officers, as politics affected many of these decisions.
One officer said the field training program was affected by this political culture, according to the prosecutor’s report. The officer indicated that recommending remedial training for a new, politically connected officer could negatively affect the field training officer’s career. This has resulted in some officers not receiving adequate training.
“Our investigation revealed that unwarranted interference in the PPPD occurred on a frequent, sometimes daily basis,” the report said. “Much of this day-to-day interference came from the borough administrator, who frequently became involved in personnel and administrative matters that were either the prerogative of the then-officer-in charge or the mayor and council.”
Under state statute and borough ordinance, the mayor and Borough Council have administrative and policy jurisdiction over the Police Department.
“Unfortunately, the borough ordinance establishing the appropriate authority has been amended several times in recent years and at one point, there was no appropriate authority established,” the report said. “Whatever the reasons, the borough administrator’s persistent interference in the operations of the police department has been improper and highly distracting to the PPPD leadership.”
Lorenzo’s “assertiveness in matters” that are in the purview of the mayor and council “continued to blur the lines of authority” for police function, leaving police leadership to explain and defend its actions to Lorenzo even though it is legally accountable only to the mayor and council.
“We are reviewing the findings, and the borough will do its best to identify and correct any of the inefficiencies,” Lorenzo said, adding that he could not comment further.
After the prosecutor’s report was submitted, The Record obtained video and audio of a hot mic in borough hall that captured a conversation between the council president, then-borough attorney, and new chief of police, Anthony Espino, and other top officers as they discussed future litigation, controversy over a vacant council seat and police personnel issues.
A message left for Espino was not immediately returned.
During the nearly two hours of audio, council President Cynthia Pirrera, who must abstain from voting on all police business because her son is on the force, is heard asking Espino to pull surveillance video from earlier in the day on Jan. 31 of the mayor and two other councilmen entering borough hall. Pirrera was looking for video evidence of whether the group had secretly met to discuss the council seat.
Pirrera is heard asking Espino to get a specific police officer to retrieve the surveillance video. Espino said he would ask a different officer to do it in the morning, but Pirrera objected, saying that particular officer would alert the borough administrator. At least three other officers go in and out of the council chamber during the two-hour audio and video, including one member of the top brass who tries to set up a laptop computer for Pirrera for the special counsel to use because the internet was not working.
“They like their influence and they like patrolling the department, so I don’t have any hope that problems highlighted in the report will get fixed any time soon,” Higgins said. “The one thing the report highlighted was there are really good police officers that work there, and if they were allowed to, they would do a really good job.”
Mayor Paul Kim said he brought up the future of the Police Department over two months ago but received pushback from the two Republican council members.
Four of the six members of the council are Democrats, as is the mayor.
The mayor said the prosecutor’s assessment was also hand-delivered to the mayor and council members, yet a copy of the report was leaked on social media last month — an issue he asked the Police Department to investigate.
“We are following up on it and are in the process of rectifying it,” Kim said. “I felt it was an attack on Lorenzo. We still have issues with police management that we are looking at right now.”
‘Lack of supervisors’
The current table of organization for the department includes a chief, two captains, three lieutenants and nine sergeants. There are currently several vacancies in the supervisory roles, the report said.
“Many of the members of the PPPD expressed dissatisfaction with the current lack of supervisors and stated that the table of organization needs to be filled,” the prosecutor’s report said. “They felt that the lieutenant and some sergeants were assigned tasks that could be considered out of title. We concur with this view.”
Many of the tasks performed by the lieutenants should have been assigned to captains, freeing the lieutenants to focus on being tour commanders and providing proper supervision to patrol functions, the report noted.
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For example, one police officer was tasked with managing the department’s operating budget, purchasing and overseeing the information technology function. These tasks are executive-level functions and should be assigned to a superior officer, preferably a captain, according to the report.
“While it was noted that the members of the detective bureau were well-respected throughout the department and earned their assignment, some officers noted that in the past, assignment to the detective bureau was often based upon personal relationships within the department and externally with politicians instead of an officer’s knowledge, skill or ability to investigate,” the report said.
How the assessment was conducted
The report was sent to the mayor and council members on March 1 and was publicly mentioned at the March 20 council meeting. The Record and NorthJersey.com requested the report from the borough through an Open Public Records Act request following the meeting and, after multiple delays and extensions, obtained a redacted version 27 days later.
The assessment included interviews with members of the department, the mayor and the borough administrator, a review of operations with emphasis on certain problematic operational issues, a review of property and evidence procedures, an audit of internal affairs investigation procedures and the evaluation of information technology infrastructures.
It also included an on-site investigation and an observation and review of the department files. The investigation took four months and was concluded in December 2022.
During the review period, the department had 37 police officers under the then-officer in charge Anthony Espino, who was eventually promoted to chief in December 2022, the same night a lawsuit filed by him against the department was settled. From 2019, when Jackson retired as chief, until December 2022, the department ran without a chief.
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“It is clear that the lack of stable leadership at the head of the PPPD has contributed to its lack of focus and its disciplinary issues,” reads the report on the assessment.
General recommendations were included in the most recent assessment report, including the removal of political influence, seeking accreditation for the department, and filling the table of organization vacancies.
Higgins noted that the department would benefit from having its own legal adviser to consult on issues including discipline, which would remove any political influence from internal affairs. Higgins said Palisades Park has a history of using the “knock-knock method” for discipline. “Depending on who’s there depends on the discipline, because of the outside influence,” he said.
Not the first time it was assessed
The Prosecutor’s Office assessment also included a report from a consulting firm dated 2020 that evaluated the Police Department. In 2019, the borough hired the Chicago-based firm Hillard Heintze to analyze and assess the department. The firm submitted a 12-page report that called it a “rudderless ship in a storm.”
The 2020 Hillard Heintze report offered multiple operational and structural recommendations, including “the need to address the pervasive political influence in the PPPD, the need for a strategic plan to guide the PPPD into the future and for a staff study, and the need for additional high-level supervision.”
To date, the issues raised in 2020 have not been adequately addressed, the assessment said.
Another assessment by a law enforcement consultancy firm specializing in formulating law enforcement policies and procedures was conducted on the department and provided to the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office for review.
As a result of the assessment findings, the borough and department hired a consulting firm to revise the Police Department’s policies and procedures, but “notably, however, the borough declined to accept recommended policies on law enforcement promotions and its recommendations to seek accreditation of the PPPD through the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police.”
In 2021, the borough hired three separate law enforcement consultants to review the operations of the department and make recommendations to enhance its function. The consultants were terminated before they filed their reports.