Police departments in New Jersey operate under state statutes which unfortunately underlie sometimes
protracted disputes over who is in charge.
The chief of police in our state’s largest city was recently suspended by the police director in the same city. Who then is the boss in the Newark Police Department? In a profession which seems so reliant on a “chain of command” one would assume the answer to be self-evident. In police departments throughout the country the answer would be obvious; in police departments throughout New Jersey the answer can be quite confusing.
Police departments in New Jersey operate under state statutes which unfortunately underlie sometimes protracted disputes over who is in charge. State law gives municipalities the authority to establish police departments. If a municipality chooses to have a police department it must do so by enacting an ordinance. State law requires that the ordinance designate an “appropriate authority” that is responsible for establishing the policies, rules and regulations under which the police department functions. That same state statute says that municipalities may (not must) create the position of chief of police. If there is a chief of police, state law reserves for the chief, and only the chief, specific responsibilities and duties regarding the operation of the police department.
State law creates a distinction between the appropriate authority’s prerogative to set policy for the police department and the police chief’s authority to run the day-to-day operations of the department. The distinction was drawn for good reason; it was drawn to balance two fundamental, guiding principles. An “appropriate authority” is appointed to provide the civilian oversight of police agencies so fundamental to our democracy at all levels of government. The appropriate authority’s oversight is balanced by insulating chiefs of police from inappropriate political interference in their efforts to enforce the law and run police departments. State law seeks the optimum balance between appropriate oversight by elected officials and the need for police chiefs to carry out their duties free of inappropriate influence or interference.
In many of our state’s larger municipalities the role of appropriate authority is filled by a full-time police director. In most municipalities, however, the function is carried out on a part-time basis by an administrator, manager or some other official or group of officials designated consistent with the municipality’s form of government. Disputes arise when an appropriate authority believes a chief of police has exceeded his or her authority, or alternatively when a police chief thinks the same is true of the appropriate authority. These disputes are not everyday occurrences but they do occur more than occasionally in police departments of all sizes across this state. The substance of the disputes range from the far too often undisputedly petty to those which involve generally acknowledged matters of importance. Many are resolved internally or with the assistance of the County Prosecutor or the Attorney General, but some result in lawsuits or administrative actions resolved only after considerable cost to the public.
By whatever means they are resolved, experience has taught that the damage done by “police chief / appropriate authority” disputes will run deeper and last longer than the very issues underlying the dispute in the first place. Even in the short term, attention and resources which should be directed to address public safety objectives throughout a municipality are diverted to address matters of contention confined within the walls of police headquarters and town hall.
There is a better way to structure the management of our local police departments. A way which will eliminate “who’s the boss” fights, and at the same time preserve the necessary balance between civilian oversight of police agencies and the insulation of police executives from inappropriate political interference. These ends are best served when one person, and only one person, is responsible for the operation of the police department and is accountable to elected officials for the performance of the police department. That one person is best called a chief of police. Every municipal governing body which creates a police department should be required to provide for the appointment of a chief of police.
Qualification standards regarding the training and professional experience of those appointed to be chiefs of police should be legislatively established. Police chiefs should be appointed for a specified term within legislatively prescribed parameters, with removal only for cause; police chiefs should not serve in positions of lifetime tenure. Finally, municipalities should not be limited to appointing chiefs from within the ranks of their respective departments as is now the case. Rather, they should be able to recruit qualified police chief candidates from other police departments throughout the state or even from other states.
While the intentions are sound, the current distinction between policy authority and day-to-day operational authority is artificial and ultimately unworkable. Under current law, an appropriate authority can establish policy for the deployment of officers for a given purpose, but only the chief of police can say which officers are so deployed. Such a bifurcation does not promote accountability, it undermines accountability. A single police executive, ultimately responsible for both policy and implementation, will be more readily accountable to elected officials for delivery of the entire range of police services. At the same time, a single official, so authorized, will be better positioned to more effectively and efficiently utilize public safety resources.
Eligibility requirements for the police chief position will ensure that only qualified law enforcement professionals can be appointed as a police department’s chief executive. Currently, a police chief must be a sworn officer who has satisfied state training requirements, but there are no training or experience requirements for those appointed as the “appropriate authority”. A fixed term of office, as is the case now for county prosecutors appointed by the governor, will provide the police chief the necessary insulation from inappropriate political interference in the operation of the department. A fixed term of office will also provide for periodic review of a police chief’s performance, a process now limited to one time vetting at the time of the chief’s initial appointment. Widening the pool of eligibles for the chief of police position beyond personnel within the department will enable municipalities to recruit the best candidate available. It will also provide an avenue of advancement for our state’s most capable police professionals whose advancement to the position of chief is now constrained by the timing of vacancies in the department with which they happened to begin their careers.
The approach here suggested calls for a fresh look at long-standing beliefs and practices about the management of local police departments in New Jersey. Experience has demonstrated that the current statutory configuration will give rise to more unnecessary, distracting and corrosive “who’s the boss” disputes like that played out recently in Newark. State law should not impose on municipalities a police leadership and management structure under which no-win, inside the stationhouse disputes arise again and again in municipalities large and small. We can structure the municipal police function in a way which better positions police executives and elected leaders to concentrate their focus on the delivery of public safety services to the citizens and communities they serve.