NJ Police Department, Now Led By Mayor’s Son, Was ‘Poorly managed, ill-equipped,’ Prosecutor Said
LAVALLETTE — The mayor's son is now ready to lead a department of a dozen full-time officers, the Ocean County prosecutor said Friday, ending a year-long takeover that continued in part because the prosecutor believed the chief lacked the necessary training.
Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley Billhimer on Friday handed back full control of the police department, including its Internal Affairs office, to Chief Christian LaCicero.
In doing so, the municipality will likely withdraw a lawsuit filed last week seeking a judge's order to wrest control.
As in most cases when county prosecutors take over the functions of a local agency, Billhimer's office said little about its motives.
But in a 20-page report released to the public on Friday, the office laid out its concerns with the management of the force, which patrols an affluent Jersey Shore resort community of 1,787 permanent residents and 20,000 summer visitors.
The takeover began with assuming control of Internal Affairs in December 2021 and then take over all day-to-day operations in May when then-Chief Colin Grant went on leave with plans to retire in November.
In returning control, Billhimier said his office's stewardship over the past 15 months had addressed numerous shortcomings with the department, such as:
🚨 Not having key access to the elementary school in case of an emergency or school shooting
🚨 Failing to subject new hires to background checks
🚨 And using the wrong kind of pepper spray that could ignite a fire if officers from neighboring departments used a Taser. (Lavallette police officers, meanwhile, still don't have Tasers of their own, which the prosecutor said was another example of a deficiency.)
Local authorities fight back
Local officials resisted the Prosecutor's Office control, which Billhimer's report characterized as interference and a continued "meddlesome pattern of behavior by the governing body, current business administrator and current township attorney."
Billhimer, who was appointed in 2018 by Gov. Phil Murphy, was more candid in private communication with borough administrator and former state Sen. John O. Bennett III.
“We are working to rehabilitate an agency that for all intents and purposes has been mismanaged for years," Billhimer said in an Oct. 28 letter made public in the borough's lawsuit. "Law enforcement candidates and employees have been poorly screened, poorly trained, poorly managed and ill-equipped to perform necessary and legitimate law enforcement functions.”
Bennett replied that Billhimer's statements were “not backed by any specifics that have been shared with the elected officials.” He added that “to assume that the new chief would be an ineffective leader is not a fair nor reasonable conclusion.”
Billhimer's report said LaCicero, who was appointed by the borough months after the prosecutor's takeover, lacked formal training. The borough had also appointed Sgt. Michael Monica to lead the Internal Affairs office without the required training. Since then, both officials have received the necessary training, Billhimer's report says.
“He is ready to lead the Lavallette Police Department," Billhimer concluded Friday.
Borough attorney William R. Burns, of the Mercer County firm KMHL&D, said that borough officials "are very happy that the situation has come to a conclusion without a need for continued and protracted litigation and we share the prosecutor's opinion [that] Christian LaCicero is duly qualified and ready to lead the police department now and into the future."
Burns said that at the time of LaCicero's appointment, he met all the qualifications of the state's Civil Service regulations. He has 17 years of law enforcement experience, including a promotion to sergeant in 2014.
Lavallette Police Department problems addressed by the takeover
Among the corrective actions taken by the prosecutor's office:
🚔 Repaired radio communication systems, including a defective antenna and a battery back-up system failure.
🚔 Updated police forms for Miranda warnings and evidence receipts.
🚔 Provided officers access to a database so they know if they are responding to a person or address with a history.
🚔 Implementing full background checks of potential hires.
🚔 Subjecting new hires to fitness evaluations.
🚔 Providing mandatory field training for new officers.
🚔 Requiring officers heading into potentially dangerous situations to wear soft body armor.
🚔 Requiring at least two officers per shift.
🚔 Implemented a community policing plan by having officers conduct area checks of residential and business districts and also walk the beat to introduce themselves to the public.
🚔 Evaluating staff bi-annually
🚔 Depositing found currency in an appropriate bank account
🚔 Added radar units to marked patrol cars and obtained certification for officers to operate them
🚔 Making sure patrol car lights and sirens and working
🚔 Created a Facebook page and added a state-mandated "pomoting diversity in law enforcement recruiting and hiring" page to the department website.
Deficiencies that prosecutor says remain
The prosecutor says the department still lacks an executive command staff, at least one detective to conduct investigations, and Tasers for officers.
Billhimer said he would also like the department to seek accreditation from the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police, which he believes "ensures that a law enforcement agency is operating at maximum efficiency and reduces risk and liability exposure.”
The borough bristled at the two-year cost of $53,000 to pursue accreditation, which 26 other departments in Ocean County currently have. The borough administrator said that unless the prosecutor helped pay for the process, Lavallette would “not realize any economic benefit from accreditation.”