PATERSON, NJ - An independent audit of the Paterson Police Department aimed at repairing the agency’s reputation and improving overall operations kicked off this week.

Originally scheduled to begin March 1, the city postponed the audit due to the coronavirus outbreak but assessors from the Police Executive Resource Forum (PERF) started its review of the department, according to Mayor Andre Sayegh. 

“COVID set us back a bit, but we’re ready to move,” Sayegh said. “It’s a nine-month process that includes reviewing every policy, practice and procedure.”

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The top-to-bottom review is part of Sayegh’s “tools for trust” initiative, an effort launched to regain trust lost with the community following a tumultuous year that included eight officers being charged with corruption and the death of Jameek Lowery. 

“We had issues with eight bad actors and that was a poor reflection on the rest of the department. The vast majority of our police officers are very good officers,” Sayegh said. “We want to build positive relations. And, if there’s an element of distrust, we want to restore that.”

In January, the city council approved a $160,000 contract with Washington, D.C.-based PERF to conduct the audit of how police work is done in Paterson and make recommendations on how to improve operations.

The audit comes amid rising tensions across the country between the public and law enforcement following the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police. It also coincides with calls to reform policing to bolster trust with the community.

Sayegh said officials “never could have anticipated” the movement taking place nationally, but are committed to doing whatever they can to “restore any trust lost between the public and police” locally.

Paterson Police Director Jerry Speziale said, “PERF has been around for a very long time and they’re very well respected in the law enforcement profession. They’re unbiased and look at things from a practical standpoint.”

“This will help us be that much better and build trust and legitimacy with the community,” Speziale said. “We want to become one of the best police departments in the nation.”

In 2015, the department, which consists of 375 officers and 125 civilians, became the largest municipal law enforcement agency in the state to receive accreditation from the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police. 

In order to become accredited, agencies must show they are adhering to best practices for operations, management, policies and procedures. According to NJSACOP, accreditation results in greater accountability, reduced risk and liability and more confidence in the department’s overall efficiency.

Heading into the auditing process as an accredited department puts Paterson in a good position, Speziale said.

“But, you can always do better with something,” he said. “Myself and the chief, we’re all about making the department better. There are always things that can be improved upon. Anyone who doesn’t think that’s true is fooling themselves.”

As part of the process, PERF will analyze organizational structure, leadership, supervision and strategy of the department. They’ll also look further into accountability, number of complaints, practices and training, as well as conduct a focus group.

According to Speziale, PERF will make recommendations on a rolling basis so changes can be implemented ahead of the audit’s final report.

PERF’s team is being led by Charles H. Ramsey, who has more than 50 years of experience in police work at departments in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and most recently, Philadelphia. His colleagues include Charles Wexler, PERF’s executive director, and Tom Wilson, director of the organization’s center for applied research and management.

“Barring any unforeseen circumstances, it should be completed by early 2021,” Sayegh said.

In January 2019, Sayegh laid out a five-point plan developed to improve the relationship between police and city residents that includes an audit, seeking funds to equip officers with body cameras, creating a Citizen Advisory Board and hiring local candidates to fill police jobs. 

Sayegh said the city is making good progress on those goals.

There are also other efforts underway in Paterson to bolster trust between law enforcement officers and the residents they serve.

As part of New Jersey State Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal’s “Excellence in Policing” initiative, a “Crisis Intervention Team” training pilot program will be launched at several departments in the state, including Paterson.

The program, the attorney general’s office said, seeks to help officers better respond to situations involving individuals with mental health issues and reduce use-of-force and death-in-custody incidents.

“The 20 spots afforded our agency will provide critical training in the area of crisis intervention, so vital to developing a culture of tolerance, understanding and cooperation between law enforcement, mental health professionals and those in the community struggling with mental illness,” Speziale said.

“By working collaboratively and engaging stakeholders with diverse perspectives, we can approach the way we interact with those in our community dealing with mental health issues in a way that results in stronger police-community relationships and improved outcomes,” he said.

In a June 2 press release, Passaic County Prosecutor Camelia M. Valdes said it will be “an invaluable tool for Paterson Police Officers and will benefit community members when they engage with law enforcement.”

The pilot program will build upon training provided through the county on “how to de-escalate highly charged situations with professionalism and empathy,” Valdes said.

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