LIVINGSTON, NJ - It was announced at last week’s council meeting that one of the two new police cars that arrived in January had finally been dispatched for police service. At the Monday, July 29 meeting, Mayor Rudy Fernandez explained that he had asked members of the police department and public works department to attend so that residents could ask questions regarding the car dispatch dilemma.
“There is a lot of misinformation floating around, so I’m just trying to get it (the truth) out there,” said Fernandez.
For the past several weeks, the unfinished police cars have become a source of much tension between certain members of the police department and town management. Conflicting accounts from each department have also been published in various local news oulets.
During the council meeting, Fernandez asked Fleet Maintenance Superintendent Chris Southworth to explain what happened with the new cars at the DPW during the past eight months.
Southworth explained that they initially started with a modem problem. “We wanted to go to 4G instead of 3G. We wanted to upgrade.” He explained that the modems were on a four to six week backlog.
“In between that time is when, I’ll say, I decided we needed new consoles, just for argument sake,” said Southworth. “The consoles became a nightmare.”
Southworth went on to say that the consoles took almost four months to get. “When we got the consoles – the faceplates were all wrong for the consoles – we had to reorder all the faceplates. That took another four to six weeks. So from the time we got all the parts, it took us about a week and a half,” Southworth said. “We wanted all the pieces of the puzzle there before we put the car together so that we could make the best product possible for the police department that we could.”
Fernandez also asked Police Chief Craig Handschuch to explain who makes the decisions about the police cars when they are ordered. Handschuch said that “moving forward, the two departments are working in cooperation with each other this year.” He explained that for this year, he and members of the DWP had sat down to discuss the 2013 order. “This year, I sat down with Mike (Anello) and Chris (Southworth) of the DWP and looked at what was available on the state contract. We reviewed those contracts – we decided what we wanted in those vehicles – and that’s the way we are going to proceed forward with ordering this year.” Handschuch said that they ordered one pick up truck and four more marked vehicles for the patrol division.
“We’ve looked at all the stats, both departments have worked in cooperation, this year. With the vehicles, I feel that we have no issues with the ordering, this year,” said Handschuch.
Councilwoman Deborah Shapiro followed after Handschuch to clarify the specific things the two departments had to review before ordering. “In mentioning repair and stats, there’s no point in purchasing the car if we can’t maintain it well,” said Shapiro. “(For example, to) make sure the engine is a good engine and that it will not burn out - like we’ve had problems with in the past. I think we’ve got a good thing going now,” said Shapiro, “with the DWP and Police Department getting together for the purchase of new vehicles.” Handschuch agreed.
Shapiro also said that she and Fernandez recently visited the town garage together to learn about what was needed to “birth a new police car.” “We’ve spoken to Southworth, Sgt. Drumm and others to understand the process. It really doesn’t take a lot of time,” said Shapiro. “In this situation you have all good people of good faith trying to work together to get the job done.” Shapiro called the eight month series of events “a perfect storm.”
While Handschuch and Shapiro described a positive working relationship for the police department and fleet maintenance moving forward, others were still bothered by the series of events that lead up to last week’s town council meeting.
“It all comes down to lack of communication. There should have been a written policy in place so that everyone knows what their job is supposed to be,” said Larry Greenberg, a Livingston resident and former Auxiliary Police Member. Greenberg argued that since Town Manager Michele Meade made a decision to take the responsibility of fleet maintenance from the police department and give it to the department of public works, she should have created a written policy to help both parties communicate and work together.
In the past few weeks, Greenberg has challenged the manager on several issues asking whose responsibility it was to take care of a certain matter. Most recently, miscommunication with a totaled car’s insurance claim and the decommissioning of vehicles has generated accusations between affected parties.
In the case of the insurance claim, Meade said that the police department handled processing, but Sergeant John Drumm, the official liaison between the police and fleet maintenance told TheAlternativePress.com that that responsibility was given to fleet maintenance.
Greenberg also asked about the decommissioning of vehicles, as a box truck still with Livingston lettering and sirens was spotted in July 2012 by a Wall Township police officer in the gas station of Sea Girt. Meade responded in an email to Greenberg saying that she did not know who was in charge of decommissioning vehicles.
Livingston Police Officer Rick Howard told TheAlternativePress.com that he was in charge of decommissioning and auctioning police vehicles up until Meade gave fleet maintenance control of the fleet a few years ago. He said that it was his understanding that with the shift in responsibilities, fleet maintenance was responsible for these duties.
“We are currently in a worldwide terror alert,” said Greenberg. “Why have the town council and mayor accepted the town manager's ‘I don’t know policy’ of who is responsible for decommissioning police cars? Where is the expensive outside investigation like that of the SRU (Strategic Response Unit) event that has never been released? Or is releasing a Police Incident Command Truck with lettering, lights, sirens, (and) license plates not a big security risk like they said the SRU training was?
“The damage could be endless, as a police incident command truck could be parked anywhere – it’s a terrorist dream come true,” Greenberg said.
Greenberg raised his concern about the policy for decommissioning vehicles again during the council meeting. He asked if there was a written policy outlining this procedure. Mike Anello, superintendent of the DPW, said that there was no written policy for decommissioning a vehicle and that it was never their practice in the past to strip the cars of any police equipment.
Handschuch offered an explanation. “In the past, the police department was responsible for stripping the car, taking the decals off (and) advertising it for sale,” said Handschuch. “We sold it, took the plates off, got the bill of sale from town hall, and sold the vehicle. That was always the policy and the way it was done. We went to another system now where we are auctioning off the vehicles and unfortunately things fell between the cracks…Unfortunately because of the new policy and new procedure, the car was sold and when the vehicle was turned over to the new buyers, that was missed.”
The chief continued, “I know that Mr. Greenberg raised a concern and it is a big concern of mine and I’m sure of the council and of the township. Mike and I will sit down and make sure that this is resolved for the future.
Fernandez told Greenberg that, “unfortunately, things like this happen every once in a while, through nobody’s fault.”
Greenberg insisted that, “In a business this big, things should be in writing, especially things as big as decommissioning vehicles.”
Shapiro thanked Greenberg for bringing this concern to their attention so that they could stop it from happening in the future.