It’s a good bet that when asked, few people would say that they would prefer to have someone lacking experience in police work in charge of their local police force.
It would be an even better bet that most people would say that they believe the person leading a law enforcement organization ought to be familiar with what the members of that organization are tasked with – namely, law enforcement.
They would also probably agree that the importance of having experience in police work is compounded when the department in question is a large department working in an urban area with public safety problems, which also happens to be the state capital.
Yes, the city we’re talking about here is Trenton, New Jersey, and once again Trenton’s government is operating in a manner contrary to simple logic and commonsense.
City ordinances detailing the police director position, created following a controversial 1999 referendum, currently do not require that the director have any experience in police work, law enforcement management, or police administration.
They only require that the person leading Trenton’s 300 officer-plus police department have “at least five years experience in a responsible capacity in public administration.”
The direct cause for this anomaly is that at some point after the switch to a director-led department, administration officials came to the conclusion that they needed to change the director’s experience requirements to this more ambiguous form. They successfully lobbied City Council to pass the ordinance revision making it law, sometime in 2003 or 2004.
At first, the purpose of this is unclear. After some thought, bearing in mind the modus operandi of the City of Trenton, it appears that the reason for such a change could be that the administration foresaw a time when they would move to install someone with no police experience, at the helm of the city’s police department.
That could be related to how Trenton’s city police force has been a contentious force, especially for the current mayor. Relationships between the top police brass and the Palmer administration have historically been of a strained nature.
That was clearly evident when Mayor Palmer, a five-term executive, told Esquire in 2007 that his greatest accomplishment, of all things, was “Changing the police department through a referendum. You take on the police – and I got rid of the fire chief, too – and they’re bonded to kick your butt.”
Consequently, Mayor Douglas Palmer has sought to rein in and control the department, to the possible detriment of the city. He did this not only through the institution of a politically appointed police director, but also through the selection of candidates for the position whom he thought would help him control the department politically, although that did not always work out.
So it appears that now that current Police Director Joseph Santiago has been ousted for violating the city’s residency ordinance, those ordinance revisions regarding experience could come into play. They would potentially allow the administration to make a push to get a political supporter to lead the department while lacking any police experience.
Doing so would once again compromise the city’s public safety efforts, in a similar way to how Mr. Santiago’s leadership has resulted in less cops on the streets, politically-charged management decisions, Capt. Paul “Sleepy” Messina and his shenanigans, and skyrocketing overtime.
Luckily for city residents and anyone who enters Trenton, City Council can move forward to revise this ordinance and require actual police experience as a prerequisite for employment as the city’s “top cop”.
Doing so would also help prevent further detrimental and unneeded politicization of a department and a city that has now suffered for nearly six years under the current regime, and could be set to suffer for longer with the appointment of an inexperienced political appointee at the head of the department.