Planet Princeton

Op-Ed: Princeton Governing Body Should Take Responsibility for Police Oversight

Martindell
Martindell

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.

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • RodneyA

    To say they are a “seriously dysfunctional organization” is painting with a very broad brush. The rotten apple was picked from the tree and now they are doing well. The current leadership is open with the administration and there is clear communication both ways. There doesn’t appear to be any more of the intimidation and abuse that might have been present in the past. If you used that quote to describe the atmosphere several months ago, you’d be partially correct, but only at the very top. It is a moot point now but you think the situation is still as it was. The past is the past. Move on and let the department and current administration do the same.

  • krystalknapp

    Please see out comment policy. We remove comments that include bad language or are slanderous. If you can post your opinion without making a personal attack that accuses someone of doing something dirty or not following the law, we would leave it up. http://princeplanet.wpengine.com/planet-princeton-comment-policy/

  • RodneyA

    Why were my comments deleted????

  • P Town

    Wasn’t it Mr Martindell and the administrator who participated in choosing the now ousted Chief

  • Dill Harris

    I do not understand why the Clerk has not been fired for incompetence, and replaced with someone (1) who can do the job timely; and, (2) understands why accurate minutes, timely reviewed by elected representatives for accuracy and then voted to approval for review by citizens, are a critical aspect of a functioning democracy.

    Frankly, the understaff of the Administrator leave a lot to be desired: Ms. Monzo should have been terminated for endeavoring to cover up her breach of hiring protocol, if not for the breach itself (regardless of an ethical policy, it was such an obvious nepotistic indiscretion, it was worthy of termination) and Ms. McDermott is simply not doing her job, placing her in default of duty.

  • Joe Small

    Once again, Mr. Martindell hits the nail on the head. He answers, point by point each argument put forth by the majority of council. As Mr. Livermen said several times at Monday night’s meeting “The buck stops here.” So why not avoid the middleman, the administrator, who already has too much on his plate in this increasingly complicated consolidated Princeton? Let the Council be the “appropriate authority” — as an experienced former Councilman Martindell points out it has worked for ever in both the former Township and Borough. Why change to a new system just before the report of the consultant that we are paying a lot of tax dollars to study our police department releases its report. Then we can see if we should change the current system. This issue will be publicly debated once more on Monday September 23rd. Since the new system of Council meeting minutes (adopted on Monday night because the clerk hasn’t submitted minutes since April) won’t record the actual debate (only the vote),interested citizens are urged to attend the meeting, or at least watch it on TV so they can know why as well as how their elected representatives are voting.

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