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Ridgewood police chief asks prosecutor to investigate controversial hiring of recruits

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot File Photo

EXCLUSIVE: Ridgewood Police Chief John Ward said he is asking the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office to investigate his actions in the conditional hiring of two police recruits in violation of a village limit on the number of department officers.

The discovery prevented the two recruits — both of whom are related to current or former village employees — from entering the Bergen County Police Academy the night before training was to begin on Thursday.

The council funded the hires in October and the recruits had already gotten their uniforms and haircuts, among other measures, when the process came to a sudden halt Wednesday night.

Following a council meeting, Ward told CLIFFVIEW PILOT that he emailed both a captain and lieutenant of his Internal Affairs unit to directly request a review by the prosecutor’s office “to ensure that my conduct was appropriate” in making the conditional hires.

“People need to have confidence in government leaders,” the chief said.

Three years ago, the council capped the number of police officers at 30. The department currently has an approved 31 because a sergeant position is vacant.

The village also requires council approval when hiring any individual related to a current village employee.

Council members on Wednesday discussed possibly increasing the cap through an amendment but decided on taking another week to review the situation.

Ward said the hires are a “pro-active” move, suggested by New Jersey’s Best Practices Program, given the expected departures of seven senior officers.

Ward said he got “email and verbal confirmation” of impending retirements from three officers of May to July of next year and four others of either October or November of 2015.

“It’s essentially a gradual frontloading of officers in anticipation of those other officers going,” the chief said.

Overtime money that ordinarily would go to senior staff close to retirement would be saved by adding entry-level officers, he said.

“We’re losing all these senior officers who fill additional non-emergency functions for the department,” Ward said. “Somebody has to be trained to take over those positions before the officers who hold them are gone.”

The two newest recruits, if they pass the academy, could be on the road by September, the chief said.

“With already-reduced staffing, and the anticipated departures, I consider it critical that we take action beforehand to protect public safety and also avoid catastrophic overtime,” Ward told CLIFFVIEW PILOT . “You’re talking one to two overtime shifts a day, minimum, if we don’t make those replacements.”

The chief said he figured on adding two officers this month, two more during the summer and three more sometime next year. The academy lasts six months, followed by mandatory field training.

Ward said he discussed the move with former village manager Ken Gabbert, who presented it to his successor, Heather Mailander.

After the council funded the positions in October, Ward said, he applied for a new certification list from the state Civil Service Commission. Letters of intent came back in mid-December, he said, and background investigations began.

Interviews were conducted by a panel that included a PBA representative, ranking officers and Ward himself.

“I combined the results of the Civil Service test with the interviews and made a recommendation to the (acting) village manager,” he said.

“She did her interviews and came up with two top candidates,” Ward said.

On Jan. 17, he said, “I was told to go forward and give the conditional offers of employment. So I did.

“That allowed us to further the process and send them for medical tests and psychological exams.”

It wasn’t until last Sunday that anyone suggested there could be a problem, he said.

Ward and Mailander told the council at its Wednesday night meeting that they weren’t aware of the cap, which the governing body established in 2011. Three members from that vote remain on the council.

“At the time it was adopted, I was not the village manger,” Mailander told the council. “I did not have hiring power and it did not pertain to me. I was not aware of it at all.”

Councils elsewhere, and in Ridgewood, have retroactively changed ordinances so that they could “hire in anticipation of having retirements.”

“There was no knowledge of any change in the number of patrolmen we could have,” Ward insisted. Everyone in the department, including the union, was on board with this.

“The village manager did what she was told to do. I did what I was told to do,” he told CLIFFVIEW PILOT . “Those who did know about the 2011 change didn’t say anything until the eleventh hour.”

As for nepotism, the chief said, the two selections were from those who responded who scored high on the Civil Service test. Not all of the highest scorers responded, he said.

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