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Stretching the thin Blue Line

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By Ron Leir
Observer Correspondent 

HARRISON – 

Harrison’s local government and the state are adamant about stretching the town’s dwindling Blue Line into the public arena but the department commander is holding up a red caution flag.

Town Councilman James Doran, who chairs the council’s Police Committee, said: “We had requested of the chief extra resources to have more of a police presence with all shifts – a boots on the ground kind of thing.”

That recommendation, Doran said, extended to getting Police Chief Derek Kearns and his second in command, Capt. Michael Green, to stay in uniform instead of their civvies.

How to achieve more visible police presence “the chief’s call,” as head of the department, Doran said.

This was something that former Mayor Ray McDonough espoused before he died Feb. 12, Doran said, and his interim successor James Fife “thought that was right on target and has no plans to change.” Fife has been recovering from aortic value surgery.

To comply with the Police Committee’s directive, Kearns said he’s reassigned one detective to patrol – leaving him with two detectives and one supervisor in the investigative division – and pulled a sergeant out of the traffic division for patrol duty. “Duties associated with traffic are now handled by our two patrol tours from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m.,” he said.

Kearns said he has no problem with being in uniform “but discretion remains with the chief by statute.” If he feels it’s more appropriate for him to be in plainclothes on a particular occasion, he’ll do that, he said.

Of perhaps more significance, Kearns said, is a request by the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) – which monitors local spending and hiring – to recall two Harrison police detectives currently on assignment with other law enforcement agencies, one with the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Task Force and another with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Both deployments are justified, Kearns said, because of the public safety benefits the town enjoys from these connections.

“When I have a concern about a crime-related issue that is beyond my resources, I can solicit help from the prosecutor and anywhere from six to 12 detectives, including my guy, will come into town, saturate an area and apprehend criminals committing a crime or crimes,” Kearns said. “Even if we don’t get an arrest, getting that help will deter and stop criminals.” Harrison has benefited from this additional coverage for the past two decades at least, he said.

As for the Homeland Security link, Kearns said he’s been able to rely on that agency for an expanded police presence during events at 25,000-seating capacity Red Bull Arena.

“I’ve called on them countless times for information and assistance on immigration matters and we’ve gotten over $700,000 in criminal forfeiture funding over the last four or five years. We’ve been able to purchase surveillance cameras and other items we’d never have had without our participating in this program,” the chief added.

“DCA wants [the two detectives] back in Harrison full-time,” Kearns said, “but I disagree.”

Hiring more cops would go a long way to achieving a more visible police presence on the streets,” Kearns said. Failing that, he said, “outside help can be essential, especially in a time of crisis. And this feeling is mutual with our outside agencies.”

Earlier this month, the mayor and Town Council authorized hiring one new cop, Officer Robert Villanueva, a former Hudson County Sheriff’s officer, who, with his veteran’s status, ranked No. 1 on the state-certified Civil Service appointment list. That brings the department’s strength to 37 – far below the 56 officers the department had in 2008.

“I made a request to the Police Committee to replace another retiree because I am concerned with the level of exhaustion of our officers,” Kearns said. “In the last six months, I’ve had memos from guys who are stressed out about being held over beyond the end of their shifts.”

With fewer personnel available, police overtime costs are climbing. Last year, he said, “we spent $400,000 and so far this year “we’re a little ahead of that. We’re attempting to get that under control.”

One strategy that Kearns says could result in increased police presence could be for the town to negotiate with the police union going to a 12-hour work shift with cops getting “half their weekends off.”

But Doran said that proposal “has met with resistance” from the Police Committee because “there’d be more wear and tear on the men. A 12-hour day is a long time to work.” And, he said, the economics of implementing that plan would work against any deployment advantages.

As for the chief’s request to add another officer, Doran said: “We’re going to ask DCA for permission to expand the force by one. We’ll try to see if we can fit it into our budget.”

Until that happens, Doran said, “it’s just a matter of being efficient in the way you deploy your personnel.” As an example, Doran said, “Don’t bring in a lieutenant [for overtime] when you can maybe use a sergeant. More flexibility will help.”

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