Coston: get rid of police ranges

A practice that has been abused by Trenton’s outgoing police director, Joseph Santiago, could be headed to the scrap heap. That’s because one of Trenton City Council’s “Gang of Four” has announced his intention to reduce or eliminate the usage of staffing ranges in the Trenton Police Department.

For people outside of Trenton, this staffing range power is an example of how wayward municipal officials can purposefully politicize a police department, to the detriment of the department and the citizens it serves.

Some sitting on City Council actually allowed this to happen through the passage of a 2004 ordinance providing the ranges. City Council basiclly handed Mr. Santiago a Palmer administration-sponsored tool to retard the professional promotion of unfavored officers, while simultaneously allowing buffoons like those grabbing recent headlines to advance into the department’s higher ranks.

Prior to the 2004 law the Trenton Police Department had set numbers of each rank – including the now-eliminated deputy chiefs, captains, lieutenants, sergeants, on down to patrolmen.

But earlier in 2004, Mr. Santiago moved to eliminate the deputy chief position and demote the three men holding the rank to captain. When he did so, a Mercer County Superior Court judge ruled that such a move required an ordinance amendment. Trenton City Council dutifully passed such an ordinance, as it worked in its then-submissive role as an ineffective check on the city’s executive branch.

Included in that ordinance was language that provided Mr. Santiago with a useful tool, in staffing ranges that could be manipulated on a whim to get a helpful but unqualified foot soldier into a higher rank, or more importantly, to keep a qualified officer in the lower ranks.

But just as City Council provided the ranges to the administration and its civilian-appointed Police Director, council can still take it away. Doing so would be an important step in reining in the power of administration officials to unnecessarily politicize a large urban police department.

It would also reclaim some of the respect that City Council lost when its members allowed it to be used as a rubber stamp.

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