By Roger Martindell
In connection with recent reports of dysfunction within Princeton’s police department, the majority of Princeton’s Mayor and Council is considering appointing the municipal administrator as the state statutory “appropriate authority” responsible for police oversight, in lieu of the governing body taking that responsibility itself. That’s a serious mistake.
The majority’s argument for doing so is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of state law and good public policy, as well as a lack of political will.
Here’s the official line coming out of Princeton’s municipal building, together with the back story based on this observer’s 30 years of experience with Princeton municipal government.
The official line: Politicians shouldn’t have day-to-day control over police operations.
The back story: That platitude is correct but irrelevant. Were the governing body to appoint itself (or any of committee of its members) as the “appropriate authority”, elected officials would not be in charge of the day-to-day operations of the police: the police chief would be, as clearly stated in the pertinent state statute, N.J.S.A. 40A:14-118.
The official line: If elected officials retain for themselves the powers of “appropriate authority”, they risk interfering politically with the administration of local law enforcement.
The back story: That’s another irrelevant platitude. No one ever reasonably accused Princeton elected officials of engaging in political interference in police matters for as long as anyone remembers. In fact, the opposite is true: too frequently, governing bodies have been in the dark about local law enforcement, which has created much of the local police dysfunction that now exists.
The official line: “Best practice” support appointing the municipal administrator in charge of the police as the statutory “appropriate authority”.
The back story: That’s a glittering generality without supporting evidence. And doesn’t apply to Princeton.
The Mayor and Council majority refers to anecdotal, i.e., “someone told me,” evidence to support the “best practice” argument. But there is no meaningful documentation that any such “best practice” exists.
Even if such evidence were to materialize, the police establishment in New Jersey has an entrenched interest in limiting elected officials’ ability to oversee police. What highly paid, insular bureaucracy wants to be held accountable to representatives of the public it serves? Naturally, it lobbies to keep the citizenry’s elected representative at a distance. And it can be expected to justify its view by advancing a self-aggrandizing “best practice” argument which might apply in Trenton or Camden.
But in a viable municipal democracy, particularly one as healthy as Princeton, the public, through its elected representatives, should have ultimate say over public safety priorities, budgets, and governance. Mayor and Council, not a bureaucrat, should be the ultimate authority over the municipality’s largest, most expensive, most essential and most publicly-sensitive department.
So what’s really going on with the Mayor and Council’s flight from responsibility for municipal police oversight?
Recent headlines show Princeton police to be a seriously dysfunctional organization. The Mayor and Council majority has made a political calculation: “We have a mess. No matter what we do, we’ll be held responsible. We must distance ourselves by appointing the about-to-retire municipal Administrator to take charge. That way, whatever happens won’t be our responsibility.”
That political calculation is completely understandable. But is it good governance or leadership?
Mr. Martindell is a lawyer and a former Princeton Borough Councilman.