CALDWELL, NJ — After hearing many concerns from Caldwell residents regarding the possibility of merging the Caldwell and West Caldwell Police Departments, the Caldwell mayor and council clarified on Tuesday that the two municipalities are only in the research phase, that no lay-offs would occur in either department and that the ultimate goal is to create a more robust department for the Caldwell-West Caldwell area.
“Nothing is set in stone, but we have to keep our options open—I think that’s our responsibility as mayor and council to citizens here and it’s a matter of getting more police on the streets,” said Councilman Pasquale Capozzoli. “Either we merge, or we expand our police department. We gave a letter to the police department indicating that the only way we would even discuss it is that there would be no lay-offs. This is not being looked at to hurt anybody, it’s just what benefits the town most.”
A common misconception among the residents who spoke at Tuesday’s Caldwell Borough Council meeting was that the West Caldwell Police Department (WCPD) would absorb the Caldwell Police Department (CPD) if the merger went into effect. However, when the council clarified that this would not be the case, one resident noted that perhaps “merger” is not the correct term to be using.
Residents in attendance also wondered why this option was being revisited, since it has been considered multiple times in the past and was never adopted.
“[The main goal] is to have a more robust department, to have a bigger detective bureau, to have possibly a traffic bureau that would be dedicated just to traffic, so that we would be dividing more service, and there would be more opportunities for police officers,” said Mayor Ann Dassing. “We would be a larger department, there would be more room to move around and more career opportunities.”
Capozzoli added that “things have changed over the last 10 years” in that there are more town houses and more businesses in town, causing more people to drive through the borough. Council members also stated that they have a responsibility to the citizens of Caldwell, which could include a need to place additional security in the borough’s five schools.
“Ten years ago we didn’t have a Parkland high school shooting,” said Dassing. “We have a board of education that has been in contact with me asking what we can do to keep our schools safer, and maybe that’s another place where we need some officers. I think that the type of crime that we had 10 years ago is different from the crime that we have today…I have drug dealers on my street and it’s upsetting. We need more eyes, we need more feet on the street, and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”
Although professionals would need to confirm, Dassing predicted that the Caldwell facility would remain open as a precinct, while the larger West Caldwell facility might house some of the current Caldwell officers. However, she reiterated that the goal is to create a West Essex Police Department where “more officers are patrolling more of the streets.”
Keri Moran, a Caldwell resident and teacher at Trinity Academy, attended the meeting with her boyfriend, also a Caldwell resident, to show her support and concern for the police department. They both spoke highly about the current members of the department and asked, “If it’s not broke, why fix it?”
“As a teacher who’s worked at Trinity Academy for 10 years, we have a very strong relationship with the police officers through DARE, having them as an active part of our community,” said Moran. “Even having some issues within my own apartment building, they’ve always been a huge help. Not to say that the West Caldwell police wouldn’t be, but I’m glad to hear that hopefully this station will stay open because I feel that the response time would be a huge problem. Having been a victim of domestic violence myself, the response time was key to me being safe, so that’s one of the things I think should be considered.”
In a draft of its 2018 municipal budget, the West Caldwell Township Council recently allocated $5,000 of the $10,000 it would cost to conduct a professional study if the two municipalities decide to continue exploring the possibility of a shared police department. The Caldwell Borough Council has yet to determine whether it will allot the other half.
“We always look to share services whenever we can,” said West Caldwell Mayor Joseph Tempesta, who added that the two Caldwells currently have a joint dispatcher, a joint recreation department and a joint school system as well. “Naturally, [Caldwell] is like a sister community and we do things together.”
Tempesta said that after a few meetings, Caldwell Police Chief James Bongiorno and West Caldwell Police Chief Gerard Paris each came up with a potential “table of organization” for a merged police department as a starting point. He added that the two chiefs presented their perspectives on what day-to-day operations, patrol squads, a detective bureau and the number of patrolmen, sergeants, captains, etc., might look like. However, it was still determined that an outside consultant would be needed in order to give an unbiased opinion on what should be done.
“We are all in unison support of trying to attempt to do this in West Caldwell,” said Tempesta. “I am pro-police. No one ever loses their job in this scenario, and no one loses their rank—otherwise we’re not going to do it. In fact, in today’s society—all of these school shootings, all of these bombings—we can’t afford to cut police, if anything we need to add a few.”
From his perspective, Tempesta said it would likely take at least five years to merge the departments in order to achieve a table of organization where there might be some cost savings, but where, “more importantly,” officers will not lose their current ranks. By way of example, he said that if there are currently 10 sergeants between the two departments and the merger suggests only having seven, the departments would not merge until three of those 10 sergeants retire and three patrolmen are hired in their place. In other words, combining the two departments would happen over a number of years.
It was also his opinion that if the two departments do merge, all officers should be paid at whichever municipality’s rate is higher.
Caldwell Councilman Thomas O’Donnell expressed concern that the West Caldwell council already determined that it was in favor of the merger, stating that he “[doesn’t] know how they could be in favor of something they don’t understand.”
Dassing and her fellow council members reiterated that until all of the details are ironed out by professionals and those professionals present what they feel is a viable plan, the council will not express an opinion one way or another. Dassing also added that the council would have the opportunity to reject any proposal that is presented to them.
In recent meetings between Caldwell and West Caldwell, representatives within the state’s Department of Community Affairs were identified who will compile all of the necessary data that will help determine the best way to move forward. According to Dassing, this department would also help to determine the best way to address the community’s major concerns, but that hiring a professional would be the likely next step.
She also indicated that the council is not trying to hide anything, and that the community will be informed as the discussion continues.