Sunday, January 27, 2008

Public Safety and the Police Chief

I was unable to attend the Council meeting that approved the submission of the layoff plan to eliminate the Police Chief position. No, I did not stay home to avoid voting against the resolution. But I do feel obligated to state my position and to add something useful to the discussion that has begun on this controversial topic.

As Plainfield enters into this debate, we need to be focused on the real objective and separate it from the political agendas and personal feelings that swirl around Chief Santiago. It is that Plainfielders need to be safe in their homes, neighborhoods and community. And they need to perceive that they are safe as well.

Before I give you my thinking on the layoff idea, a comment on crime statistics. The homicide rate is a critical measure of community health but is not an effective measure of police effectiveness. Police cannot prevent homicides directly. So beware politicians using it. We have, however, proved in Plainfield that the homicide rate can be used to elect a mayor.

Crime stats can be useful. The numbers comparing burglary, assault and other, more common crimes from year to year in Plainfield are very helpful for police strategy. The national, regional and local trends over time are also useful to see whether Plainfield is merely following the overall decrease in crimes or, as we fervently hope, beating the downward trend. My opinion as a citizen (I am not a public safety professional) is that we are not improving as much as we could and not doing enough to narrow the crime gap between Plainfield and surrounding towns like Scotch Plains, Westfield and Dunellen. This is where the Police Chief comes in.

We have all heard that some high crime cities have made major strides in crime reduction because of a progressive police chief exhibiting strong leadership and using creative policing strategies. I have come to believe that Plainfield needs to emulate these cities. I do not believe we have done so yet.

We have an excellent police force. Local elected officials, in my opinion, understand the importance of public safety and have the desire to do what is necessary for improvement. Chief Santiago is a truly honorable and dedicated Chief. Who could be more responsive to citizen complaints than our Chief? So why isn't Plainfield beating the national crime reduction trends. I believe there is a disconnect between the stated desires of elected officials and citizens on one hand and police policy implementation on the other.

The message I hear from our Police Chief is - we are doing a terrific job (I agree for the most part) and - we are doing everything we possibly can (I disagree). I am not quoting him but paraphrasing what I have heard him say about the departments performance over the last four years. He deserves our respect and gratitude for what he has accomplished in Plainfield under the current policing approach. The real question is how do we improve public safety going forward. I want to see a Police leader who is bringing us new public safety initiatives and lessons learned from other cities. I am not seeing that. Council members have continually asked for more quality of life enforcement and I do not see a satisfying response. I do not see a coordinated effort to implement police policy between the Chief and the city administration (current and previous).

If I was in attendance at the last Council meeting I would have voted in favor of submitting the layoff plan to the state. I believe the citizens want the mayor and council to do a better job with public safety, more than satisfaction with the current approach, more than proclaiming a drop in the homicide rate. The administration deserves the opportunity to try some new approaches in our police department.

Further City Council action will be needed to switch from a police chief to a police director, assuming the state approves the layoff plan. I have not yet taken a position on future steps. I have questions about state law and regulations that I need to answer. For now, I think we are pointing in the right direction. We need to make changes. We must be very careful to do this effectively. I do not want to see a good police force become less effective. We could do a whole lot worse than where we are right now. But we need to do better. I hope our discussions are based on an honest assessment of where we are today in the public safety domain, what we want and the best way to get there.

Cory Storch
City Councilman, 2nd Ward

PS - I missed the last Council meeting because I have been accepted as a fellow in Leadership New Jersey. Thursday night was part of a mandatory training session to set the stage for a 12 month program. Leadership NJ brings together leaders from all walks of New Jersey life to identify and and work on the states' problems. Plainfield has been represented in the program in past years by Kaili Baucum, Andrea West, Reverend Gerald Thomas and Jim McGreevey among others.

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