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Bergen sheriff, police chief call for investigations of one another’s agency

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot File Photo

YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: The battle between Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino and county Police Chief Brian Higgins exploded tonight, as Saudino accused Higgins of lying about the appearance of two BCPD officers at the scene of a traffic stop of Freeholder Maura DeNicola by a sheriff’s officer — and both men called for criminal investigations of the other.

It began when Higgins ( above, left ) earlier today released a video from a BCPD cruiser of part of the Aug. 14 stop, as well as a letter to county Executive Kathleen Donovan in which he accuses Saudino’s officers of a pattern of behavior that “may rise to the level of harassment, intimidation and possibly official misconduct.”

DeNicola has said she believes she was stopped because of her opposition to folding the county police into the sheriff’s office.

The sheriff’s officer who stopped her for “impeding the flow of traffic” on northbound Route 208 in Fair Lawn – before discovering that she was driving her husband’s car with an expired registration — reported that the two county cops who showed up “distracted and intimidated” him, asking a series of unnecessary questions about his job.

SEE: Bergen sheriff’s officer claims being ‘distracted, intimidated’ by county police after stopping freeholder

Higgins, in his Sept. 6 letter to Donovan, emphasizes that the video reveals nothing of the sort.

Indeed, a review of the 22-minute tape turns up no audio beyond mostly aimless chatter between Sheriff’s Officer Vincent Surace and two BCPD officers who arrive at the scene separately. They’re heard discussing officers they know, trucks, and cars, among other topics.

“Nothing supports the perception of intimidating or distracting conduct,” Higgins wrote to Donovan. “If there was any interference into the actions taken that night it came from another source.”

As Higgins noted, Surace says on the video that the sheriff’s standard operating procedure is to “ticket and tow.”

County Police Officer Justin Garcia responds: “You gotta do what you gotta do, man.”

Surace then says, “I gotta get the blessing from the top.”

Garcia repeats: “You gotta do what you gotta do.”

Surace later says to DeNicola: “I’m caught in the middle here. I’m in a bad spot right now…. I’m coming off as the bad guy.”

Saudino, in turn, said tonight that Higgins’s letter to Donovan “provides shocking insight into the political operations taking place within that agency.

“As our office has maintained from the very start, the appearance of two BCPD officers on the scene of a routine traffic stop was no coincidence, in direct contrast to Chief Higgins’s prior statements.”

As a result, Saudino ( above, right ) called for “an immediate investigation by the Prosecutor’s Office and the Attorney General if necessary into the misuse and politicization of county resources by Chief Higgins.

“The Chief is now on record as having lied to the public about the events of the night in question, and it is incumbent for the credibility of that office and the safety of Bergen County residents to have an impartial investigation into the BCPDs actions in this incident,” the sheriff said.

Higgins goes further: “I recommend that this matter be referred to the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office and/or the United States Attorney’s Office for their independent review and to investigate the accusations and take appropriate action.”

Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli told CLIFFVIEW PILOT that, while he was aware of the DeNicola incident, no one had asked his office to investigate. If someone does, he said, he would make the decision whether or not to pursue it.

Saudino said he is conducting his own probe into “what role if any the telephone calls between Freeholder DeNicola and County Police personnel during the traffic stop played in the event of August 14th.

“One basic question must be asked of the County Police: Why did two officers remain on the scene for over fifteen minutes after ascertaining that it was a simple unregistered vehicle incident by a driver who posed no danger?” he added.

In a statement issued tonight, Saudino cites comments reported by North Jersey news sites of Higgins contending that his officers “had simply been passing by and were offering their assistance” and “were unaware that DeNicola was in the car.”

As a result of Higgins’ letter, Saudino said, “We now know that nothing could be further from the truth.”

The letter from Higgins to Donovan states, in part:

“On Wednesday, August 14, 2013 I was notified that, after leaving a Freeholders Meeting, Freeholder Maura DeNicola had been stopped on Rt. 208 northbound and that it appears that she had been stopped by an Officer from the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office.

“Upon receiving this information I called Lt. James Mullin, the Executive Officer of Operations, and apprised him of the situation. Lt. Mullin is aware that Freeholder DeNicola has publicly noted her opposition to a forced consolidation of the Bergen County Police Department into the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office and there has been a series of incidents involving members of the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office because of the consolidation issue. Although these incidents have been directed towards several individuals, Freeholder DeNicola has been a frequent target.

“Aware of these past incidents I instructed Lt. Mullin that, if there was an officer available one should be sent to the scene to back up the Sheriff’s Officer and make certain that the County Police Officer’s mobile in-car video system is activated to memorialize the incident. The Sheriff’s Office does not have a “Patrol” unit and therefore is not equipped with mobile in-car video, although required by county police.”

“In fact,” Saudino said tonight, “the BCPD was fully aware of the car’s occupant, and officers were dispatched explicitly to provide personal assistance to the Freeholder in contradiction of basic police procedures.”

“It is unconscionable that the BCPD continues to squander taxpayer resources to ingratiate themselves to certain elected officials in Bergen County,” said Saudino, who is running for re-election in November. “Whether it is the personal chauffeuring of former County Political Boss Joseph Ferriero or County Executive Kathleen Donovan, to this latest episode, the era of a private police force acting on the behest of favored politicians needs to come to an end.

“The people of Bergen County deserve nothing less than professionalism in their County law enforcement and must demand that the Bergen County Police Department return to its core function of public safety.”

Higgins made the same complaint about Saudino.

“The pretext for the stop of the Freeholder is troubling,” he wrote to Donovan. ” The Sheriff s Officer’s actions are attempted to be justified  by an allegation that the vehicle was traveling too slowly. His actions that followed are not consistent with that statement.”

For instance, Higgins said, he has determined that Surace didn’t ask DeNicola whether she was having a health problem or trouble with her car — or whether she was under the influence of anything.

“Do you know why I pulled you over?” he asks, according to Higgins.

After DeNicola says she doesn’t, he said, Surace told her about the expired registration.

“He never addressed nor mentioned that she was [traveling] too slowly,” Higgins wrote.

Viewed amid the tensions between the agencies, Higgins said he sees “a pattern that rises to the level of harassment with the intent of influencing government officials, because of Freeholder Di Nicola ‘s public position supportive of the Bergen County Police Department’s independence.”

Higgins also cited what he said was an incident at Seasons Restaurant in Washington Township in March 2012, in which he said a lieutenant of his was told by Saudino that “war is coming.”

Later that night, Higgins said, Washington Township police were called on a report of two men taking photos in the restaurant parking lot – and discovered they were sheriff’s officers who claimed to be taking photos of Donovan and the county police security detail that accompanies her to events.

“No law enforcement goal appears to justify  these actions,” Higgins wrote.

On Oct. 2, 2012, he added, a Bergen County Sheriff s officer “was captured on security video taking photos of the rear of County Executive Donovan’s Chief of Staff Jeanne Baratta’s vehicle. That video appears to contain images of that Sheriff’s Officer taking a photo of Ms. Baratta’s license plate. The Sheriff’s Officer was in uniform at the time of the incident.”

Higgins also cited incidents that he said involved DeNicola and Sheriff’s Officer Matthew Ryan. One, he said, occurred at the end of a “listening tour” meeting to discuss the proposed law enforcement merger, during which he accused Ryan of shouting at her – “stating, in effect, that she did not know ‘what the f—‘ she was doing with law enforcement, amongst other statements.”

Another incident allegedly occurred at a January beefsteak dinner: Higgins accused Ryan of “creating a scene” by shouting at DeNicola in “an aggressive nature,” to the point that another officer intervened and told Ryan to “calm down.” He said Ryan continued shouting, eventually saying he hoped Donovan would show up so he could “rip her head off and send her out of here with her tail between her legs.”

Ryan also told DeNicola he “knows where she lives,” Higgins added. This was troubling, he said, because two weeks earlier she caught someone in a white pickup truck taking photos of her house.

Higgins said DeNicola told Saudino about Ryan, but that he dismissed her claims, while calling the officer “harmless.”

“Apparently an Internal Affairs investigation has been conducted but Sheriff’s Officer Ryan continues on duty,” the chief wrote to Donovan.

Higgins also included several social media posts, some of them profane, that he said showed up on a sheriff’s union page.

Saudino responded that his office “will provide a detailed breakdown of the various prevarications in Chief Higgins report, line by line, within the next few days.”

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