Trenton Mayor Douglas H. Palmer, using former Police Director Joseph Santiago as his arbiter, took a page right out of U.S. President George W. Bush’s playbook when he brought in the former director to politicize, marginalize, and harass officers in the Trenton Police Department starting in 2003.
That evaluation rings true when comparing what Mayor Palmer did with Trenton’s police department to what President Bush did, through attorney generals John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales, to the U.S. Department of Justice.
In a piece written by Andrew Gumbel in The Nation, Mr. Gumbel details how an angry President Bush turned his gaze towards the Justice Department, which had apparently earned the ire of many neoconservatives by working on such “liberal” causes as civil rights cases and protecting the voting rights of minority Americans.
Because of these perceived violations, the Bush administration, ever working towards multiplying the powers of the executive branch beyond the reach of the checks and balances of the other branches, began politicizing the department by installing ideologues and party loyalists in key positions.
From there, they controlled the hiring of attorneys for work in key positions at the department, ensuring that important posts and even the rank-and-file of the department became increasingly filled with conservatives of strong political views but dubious legal skills. Good employees were marginalized through placement in less-important positions.
Then came instances of misbehavior, with favored Department of Justice employees harassing, intimidating, and attacking other employees not of the same political persuasion, up to and including the now infamous firings of various U.S. attorneys by the then-attorney general, Mr. Gonzales.
The end result was that “They have destroyed the internal culture of the Justice Department…,” said Bruce Fein, a prominent constitutional lawyer quoted in The Nation piece, entitled “Justice, Bush-Style”.
To complete the comparison, hop on the northbound train to Trenton.
There, Mayor Palmer engaged in similar activities regarding the police department.
This came after various officers, during contract negotiations or political campaigns, expressed views contrary to the mayor either by directly attacking him or through their support of other mayoral candidates, like current Mercer County Freeholder Tony Mack.
With these transgressions in mind, the mayor pursued and successfully executed a drastic change in the department’s leadership, in the 1999 citizen’s referendum that resulted in a civilian, police director-led department rather than a police force led by a sworn, tenure-protected, and less-politically inclined police chief.
After a series of directors who did not sufficiently politicize the department, in came Mr. Santiago, and the mayor had his man. Immediately, officers who had crossed the mayor’s path or director’s path were relegated to meaningless late-night shifts and desk jobs, while less qualified, but loyal and like-minded officers were placed in positions of leadership.
Instances of official excess emerged, with harassment, intimidation, and unpunished misconduct becoming commonplace. The department lost dozens of valuable officers through retirement and attrition who might have stayed with more even-handed, less-politically motivated management decision making.
Like the Department of Justice, the end result was a politicized organization with limited effectiveness, after skilled employees left and others were relegated to meaningless positions while like-minded peons flourished and were put in positions of importance.
Mr. Santiago is now gone, having resigned after being found in violation of Trenton’s residency ordinance, but already Mayor Palmer seeks to bring another politically-charged appointment to rein in the police department, while suppressing dissenters.
Sounds a little like the Justice Department, doesn’t it?