JERSEY CITY –
It didn’t take long for Hudson County’s newest chief law enforcement to set the agenda for her office.
Immediately after taking the oath last Thursday (Constitution Day) as the county’s “first-ever female and Hispanic prosecutor in the history of Hudson County,” as noted by a press release from her office, Esther Suarez pledged as “short term goals,” to raise her staff’s pay and her office’s conviction rate.
That news was greeted by tumultuous applause from the dozens of assistant prosecutors and investigators seated in the gallery at the Dickinson High School gym in Jersey City where the swearing-in ceremony was held.
Sitting with the several hundred spectators in attendance was County Executive Tom DeGise whose administration – through county taxpayers – will be expected to pick up the bill.
Also in the crowd were U.S. Attorney for N.J. Paul Fishman and Acting N.J. Attorney General John J. Hoffman, along with State Sens. Sandra Cunningham (Jersey City), Nick Sacco (North Bergen mayor) and Brian Stack (Union City mayor).
Suarez, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from their native Spain and settled in Bayonne where they operated a laundromat, now lives in Secaucus.
“Right here before you,” Suarez told the audience, “is the face of immigration … people in search of a better life for their children. My parents gave [my sister and me] a far better life than if they had not immigrated. I wish to thank the United States for giving my parents that chance and the state of New Jersey for giving me my chance.”
Suarez, a registered Democrat, stepped down from the bench in Passaic County Superior Court to be considered for the Hudson County prosecutor’s job, for which she was nominated by Gov. Chris Christie in June and thereafter confirmed by the legislature. She was officially appointed in July, replacing Guy Gregory, who had been serving as acting prosecutor since 2012, having succeeded Edward DeFazio.
Suarez, who received her law degree from Rutgers University School of Law at Newark in 1997, has served as associate counsel with the Scarinci & Hollenbeck law firm, Hoboken corporation counsel, Union City Parking Authority counsel and Bergen County counsel.
Kearny Mayor Alberto Santos, who also is clerk to the Hudson County freeholders, said he welcomed Suarez’ appointment, both because of her experience in the private and public sector and because she adds to the diversity of the region.
And she’s wasting no time getting to know the local police authorities in Hudson, according to Kearny Police Chief John Dowie. “She’s already reached out to our county Police Chiefs Association and wants to come to our next meeting in October where she will address us,” he said.
In the meantime, Suarez has other issues on her plate, as she made clear during her Dickinson speech.
“I want to make the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office a model office as the best in New Jersey,” she asserted, “but this will take a lot of work. We will return this office to the rich and exemplary position it deserves and [in the process] attain justice for all.”
To that end, Suarez said, “Retaining many of the [office’s] hardworking employees who deserve more and filling openings with the brightest and the best will require raising salaries [that are now] the second lowest paid in New Jersey. I don’t want us to be the training ground for other offices.”
A survey conducted by the N.J. Attorney General’s Office in August 2010 showed full-time assistant prosecutors in Hudson topping only Cumberland County with a median salary of $65,500 year and edging out only Burlington with a mean salary of $74,634. Similar results were chronicled for county detectives and investigators.
Statewide, only Essex County has more staff than Hudson. Suarez also pledged to:
• Upgrade her employees’ “working conditions” by upgrading the facilities at 595 Newark Ave. and 555 Duncan Ave. “We need them to feel proud about where they go to work,” she said.
• Improve the HCPO web site and “begin a social media campaign.”
• Collect more “forfeiture” funds – seizure of assets from criminal enterprises – that can be invested in the HCPO where needed most.
• Start a “mental health diversion” program to refer criminal offenders with mental health issues into “appropriate rehabilitative alternatives.”
• Continue to meet with lo cal police chiefs.
• Interact with youth offenders.
• Increase the office’s con viction rate which is “now not where any of us want it to be,” she said.
• Expand in-service training for HCPO staff.
• Set up a working relation ship with the Port Authority PD and other law enforcement units in the region to deal with catastrophic events.
“Every decision I make will be based on the office’s best interests,” Suarez maintained.
“You will have my best effort every day. I promise I will make you proud.”