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Why are Bergen sheriff’s officers treated differently than other police agencies?

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

EDITORIAL : Bergen County sheriff’s officers don’t begrudge the pay raises and benefits enjoyed by their counterparts at the county police department or prosecutor’s office — they just don’t understand why county officials are threatening to lay them off, demanding self-insurance and considering privatizing the county jail. “Where is the fairness?” one asked.

Bergen Sheriff Michael Saudino (No re-use without hyperlink)

Members of the prosecutor’s office got raises, as well as post-retirement dental coverage, in a contract approved last July. Earlier this year, county police got 2.4% cost-of-living increases.

Sheriff Michael Saudino, meanwhile, was directed by County Executive Kathe Donovan to chop $8.5 million from his office’s $58 million budget for 2011 — although Saudino says, at best, he can hack out about $4 million before cuts end up going to the bone.

With three different law enforcement agencies serving the county — in a triple-tiered layer above the local departments — there is definitely overlapping of functions, from police dogs to emergency tactical teams.

Jerry DeMarco Publisher/Editor

The catch: Every county must have a prosecutor’s office. It is an arm of the state Attorney General’s Office, the top law enforcement authority in New Jersey. Its detectives make big cases, handle major murders that some of the smaller departments can’t.

It is also an agency that is able to produce some of its own revenue, through seizures and forfeitures.

Every county also must have a jail, as well as corrections officers to transport what, in many cases, are extremely dangerous prisoners. Judges, prosecutors, juries and others — which would include the rest of us — all depend on sheriff’s officers for their safety.

The trick is for county officials to determine what other services are essential and who, between the sheriff’s department and county police, should provide them.

Until that happens, there will be competing interests, political battles, and sore feelings on all sides — especially with county lieutenants and captains making upwards of $35,000 more a year than their counterparts with the sheriff’s department.

It’s no way to operate, not with the threat of life-and-death situations hanging over the rank-and-file of those agencies.

But the manuevering continues.

Fair Lawn last fall switched to a self-insurance plan that employees have called a disaster.

“Employees have been sent to collections, some bills from as far back as September 2010 have not even been paid and others have been forced to hand over credit card information as backup in the event the plan does not pay,” said PBA Local 67 President David Boone of Fair Lawn.

Saudino already is working with fewer people than his predecessor, Leo McGuire, said Ed Brunner, the president of PBA Local 134. Thinning the ranks or forcing officers to work overtime to cover shifts each court trouble, he said.

Just this week, a sheriff’s officer was jumped by a jail inmate — and managed to survive only because he hit the emergency alert button on his radio. Officers from other areas came running. And although they subdued the assailant, the officer already had been beaten badly enough to put him — and one of his rescuers — on medical leave.

As for privatization: New Jersey has no privately run jails for a reason. Look no further than the history of its halfway houses.

Last summer, an ex-con from Bergen County walked away from a Newark halfway house, then strangled his former girlfriend and rammed her car into a police cruiser in Ridgefield.

Not a single study has shown a clear cost saving through privatizing jails or prisons. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, looking at both types of facilities nationwide, bluntly stated that such savings “simply have not materialized.”

In fact, some studies show that private prisons end up costing MORE. On top of that, the staffing levels tend to be lower and the training not as rigorous — leading to increases in assaults on both officers and fellow inmates.

Private facilities operate in poorer areas, taking advantage of tax breaks and low wages to make money. If the company isn’t paying well, the “talent” pool will be full of young, unskilled people in a highly volatile and violent system.

Basically, you’re begging for trouble.

In Pennsylvania, a privately run jail had seven inmates die in 2005 before the county brought in a new operator — and paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle wrongful death suits.

Also consider: Those states that have tried to move to private facilities did so because theirs were overcrowded. That’s not the case in Bergen.

Saudino, like McGuire, is known for holding his people accountable. You don’t see or hear about the disciplinary measures taken against officers — including firings — because that’s not how either of them has operated. You take care of business in-house, you send the messages that need to be sent, and the system, for the most part, operates at a highly professional level.

His officers all know that Saudino is fighting for them. The last thing he — or the county — needs is a morale problem, in what already is an extremely dangerous job.

“The bottom line is the Sheriff’s Officers should get what the other two county (police) agencies receive — no more or no less,” one officer said. “What’s fair is fair.”

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