Livingston, NJ - At the weekly Town Council meeting on Mon., May 13, Officer Andrew Ullman, President of Local PBA 263, made a statement expressing his concerns over the Town Manager's, and subsequently, the Council's authorization of a third party to investigate the training exercise that took place on Apr. 19.
“I strongly oppose this investigation,” Ullman proceeded to say, “as to the manner in which it was relayed to the public and for the insidious undertones it has represented itself to be... You have hired a third party investigation at a cost to us, the taxpayer. I can assure you that as trained professionals you cannot imagine we could have easily reviewed the failures and break down that day if only we were asked. This would have saved the taxpayers a lot of money. We also could have given you the recommendations for remediation without having to employ an outside agency. We continue to train day in and day out, in order to maintain a level of expertise of which our community can be proud of, and most importantly, feel safe and secure.”
Ullman also remarked on the fact that this incident happened during the lock-downs in Boston following the Boston Bombings, stressing “this is why we train to the level that we do.”
Officer Ullman gave an example of a way the police handled a similar matter just days after the one that occurred on Apr. 19. He said that officers received a call about an unidentified man in the woods around a public school. After questioning the man, it turned out he was a teacher scouting the area for teaching purposes. This was not the correct procedure the teacher was supposed to follow.
Ullman said that after that day “we worked together to learn something, and the mistake won't happen again.” He continued, “This event took place after Apr. 19, so the question I have to ask you right now is “why are we doing all this? Are we looking for a fall guy, someone to pay the price, someone to be a scapegoat, to wear the scarlet letter? We know we made mistakes that day, mistakes that are not taken lightly, mistakes that, fortunately, did not hurt anyone. Mistakes that can and have been corrected. Mistakes that are okay to make during training exercises so that we can learn and be better prepared should something ever happen. Mistakes that should not have been blown out of proportion and mistakes that should not be exposed to seemingly be a deflection from other events that had happened that very same day.”
He continued, “Let me remind you, the Town Council, who I'm sure by way of a new public relations person went to the press first instead of us... Let me assure you of one thing: we take this job very seriously. Each and every one of us comes to work day in day out with the knowledge that if we are called upon we are ready and able to lay down our lives for the protection of each other, you and your families, and every citizen of this community. We do this knowing that our families may be left without a father, a mother, a brother, sister, uncle and aunt. We know that this job is not for everyone and for all this, at the minimum; we deserve better treatment from the Town Council and the Town Manager. We deserve to be treated fairly ... with dignity and respect. And we don’t ask for anything more than what we give to the citizens of this community.”
In conclusion, he added, “And for this I stand before you and implore you to discontinue this investigation. Let us forgo this adversarial approach. Let us sit at the table together like community and speak about the issues at hand. Let us formulate a plan together. Let us stop pointing fingers and blaming other people. And let’s stop accepting the corporate way of doing things and revert back, once again, to the communal way. We stand before you ready to accept all the duties and responsibilities given to us. I ask you now humbly to be a council of elected officials who do not play Monday morning quarterbacks, who do not rely on other people to pinpoint our flaws but rather to be the council who accepts our ability via our word. And one that can rest assured that we, by our deeds and actions, will make the appropriate changes and continue to provide with the exemplary service they have come to expect and deserve.”
Attendees of the meeting stood up and applauded Ullman's words.
Mayor Rudy Fernandez responded, saying that “safety is of paramount importance and we want all of you to return home after coming out and working, protecting us and everyone in this town. We did not know this training was going on, others in the police department, I have come to understand, did not know the training exercise was going on. We could have had a very horrible incident, and instead of you standing up here stating that you can work out these issues, you could have been standing up here yelling at us, or somebody could be standing up there yelling at us, stating 'how did so and so get shot at? How did so and so get killed? I would much rather be having this conversation than be sitting at a funeral someplace else...”
He added, “When calls got out to dispatch and they sent out all those cars that were going through town at 90 miles an hour they could have hit anybody walking on the sidewalk. They got there and there were officers there that were not part of Livingston who were not part of this training and maybe not recognized. We could have ended up with a really bad situation. And quite frankly, I would rather know how not to have that not happen again and have people upset at us for having to look into this, than to have people upset at us for having somebody die. That is my concern … you hit it right on the head when you mentioned the safety of your members, the safety of the police department, and the safety of the residents.”
He finished by saying, “And did the township know? No, but I guess the report will tell us that. Did the rest of the department know? ... But why did that happen? Why were cars dispatched over there? That could have turned into a really bad situation, and the thing I don't want to happen while I'm sitting in this chair is to have to go to a funeral or have to explain to somebody even why a shooting occurred. Maybe we were far from that happening that day, I don't know, maybe we were. But this was something that the Council wanted to look at to see why the township didn’t know, apparently why, and maybe I am wrong, other members of the police department didn’t know that this was going on. We are concerned about the safety of the residents. Public safety is one of the most important things we do, and we are fortunate we have an exemplary police department to do that. But what I don't want is for somebody to get killed.”
Officer Ullman responded that his men are not beyond mistakes, and are willing to undergo scrutiny, constructive criticism, and correction and it “is your (the Town Council's) responsibility to make sure we conduct ourselves in a manner that is appropriate. However, I disagree with the Town Council's decision to authorize the investigation, and I do believe it was the Town Manager that created this investigation.”
Ullman then said it was his understanding that officers were already under investigation just a few hours before a resolution was passed in a closed Council meeting to authorize such an investigation. He also implicated that the event may have been used to cover up another event involving Town Manager Meade. Mayor Fernandez responded by saying the Council did pass the resolution, and is awaiting further reports on the investigation.
Former Township Police Officer, Ronald Risch, a town resident then made a statement, mostly discussing his views on the effect Town Manager Meade has had on the community. He said, “Ever since Meade has taken her position, the morale of every person employed by this town has gone down.” Risch expressed concerns over charges made against several police officers which had been dealt with steadfast proceeding, resulting in suspension, with Ms. Meade having charges against her with no such result.
“We want her suspended,” Risch remarked, “she doesn't belong in that seat right now. We want to know why (isn't she suspended)?” Mayor Rudy Fernandez answered that Manager Meade is currently not under investigation and she has his full support.
Dorothy Risch expressed support of her husband’s statements and discussed the difficulties of supporting five kids and a mortgage when her husband was suspended without pay and had to fight for money they felt was owed by the department to Mr. Risch, which they eventually received.
Other residents expressed their interests in keeping the community undivided and letting “the Police Chief be the Police Chief.” Mayor Fernandez remarked that there “is no divide” and that he is still waiting on the full report with the overarching goal of ensuring public safety.
Councilwoman Deborah E Shapiro discussed how “one person says one thing, another person says another, and so on” and that the investigation is proceeding as it is because “we want to figure out what happened and make sure in never happens again.”
Long-time Livingston resident and Essex Fells Police Department Chief, Vincent Kulik said, “You should trust your professionals and not a third party.” He said he believes the investigation is a mistake and a “waste of money.”
Resident Bob Hunter who was carrying some recent newspapers remarked about how we live in a “Post-Boston-Bombing World” and mentioned several recent shootings and the attitude of guns in America. His remarks gave reverence to the importance of public safety and safe gun ownership, stating he “couldn't believe” people owned assault rifles that he had trained with in military service and thought of it as a regularity.
Deputy Mayor Michael Rieber made a statement of how important the relationship between the Police Department and the Town Council was to him, and said the remediation of this relationship is of utmost importance: “The highlight of my week … is going to the police department and visiting my boys over there... There are no fences there, I love you guys... My understanding is that our form of government doesn't allow us to just sit down and talk to you guys, so that is part of the problem I think... Hopefully we can sit down and talk about it someday.”